It's completely understandable if you miss BarMeli while driving on NE 79th Street.
The tapas and wine bar shares a small, slightly seedy shopping center with a hair salon and a tiny gym that promises personal training at discount prices. That makes it seem all the more like a hidden gem, a personal find, one of those "secret" places that people whisper about to their friends, as in "I just found this great little joint."
Inside, the restaurant feels like one of those wonderful little bistros or tavernas found in movies. You really can't pinpoint the exact country or town — you just know it's damn charming and a little romantic. That's not to say you can't enjoy some wine with friends. The bar is a welcoming place for commiserating with a comrade over a tough workday — especially from 5:30 to 7 p.m., when select wines are $5 by the glass and Mythos beer is $3. The place is also friendly enough if you're on your own.
Liza Meli, who stands behind the bar almost every evening, likes her bistro that way. The BarMeli owner had quite a few restaurants in Miami, most recently Ouzo's Greek Island Taverna on 78th Street, and opened BarMeli a little more than a year ago without the assistance of PR machines or marketing pros. Although I moved to the neighborhood months ago, I only recently discovered the cozy little wine bar. I've been back many times since.
The wine selection is predominantly from the Mediterranean, with some interesting selections from Sardinia and Israel. Glasses range from $8 to $12. The tapas are all delicious, but the showstopper is the flaming saganaki ($12). The Greek cheese dish is doused with brandy and set aflame. One time it triggered the smoke alarm, which caused a round of applause from the diners. Meli says the saganaki sets off a chain reaction in the room. "Once one person orders it, everyone else does too."
Proteins include plenty of lamb, octopus, and a chicken breast that's nicely charred on the outside, juicy on the inside.
Vegetarians have many options, such as piquillo peppers stuffed with manchego cheese, pine nuts, and almonds ($9).
Lighter choices include grilled zucchini slices, arranged in a pinwheel and topped with mint and feta ($10), and grilled asparagus, also topped with feta ($10).
Stuffed grape leaves are filled with rice and pine nuts and seasoned with olive oil and lemon ($5).
Greek roasted potatoes pop with a hint of oregano and lemon ($6).
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On a recent visit, regulars were greeted by name. Their favorite wines were poured without an order. After a particularly satisfying dinner, Meli asked if my guest and I wanted dessert. Sated, we regretfully declined. But she pulled out a chilled bottle of chocolate wine and poured two little glasses. "If you don't want dessert, you've got to at least end with something sweet." Those touches, along with good food and drinks at reasonable prices, make BarMeli a great neighborhood joint.