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Restaurant of the Week: Cava

Cava fosters good food in a sweet setting
by: KATIE HARTLEY, Mussels make a nice beginning at Cava.

'Cozy' is often a euphemism for 'cramped,' but that's not the case at Cava, a wonderful new addition to the Southeast Foster Road neighborhood.

In the way that Lauro Kitchen made mid-Southeast Division a place to go and eat, Cava may have that transformative effect on this neighborhood, though at the moment it still sticks out like a flute of pink champagne at a brew pub.

A generous entryway means the place can look deserted from the street, but it serves to keep the chill air outside.

The main room has a faintly old English village church ambience, and a reclaimed pew divides the restaurant. Seating is at low tables along that side, in comfortable oversize booths or at the friendly bar.

If too much holiday cheer has taken a toll on your appearance, the lighting in here will do wonders for your skin. The persimmon-colored walls make everyone glow.

Attention to small details elevate Cava from neighborhood standard to a citywide find.

The beer, wine and spirits lists are carefully selected to provide the best bang for the (not so many) bucks. The judiciously limited menu is Mediterranean in the broad sense of the word - Spain to France, Italy and Morocco.

Two special salads one recent night both made fine use of local bounty. Lightly cooking local greens faded some of their inherent bitterness, and nubs of chestnuts and guanciale provided sweetness and salt. Another salad featured shaved fennel enlivened with citrus.

A starter of butternut squash soup with brown butter and sage is just what fall food is supposed to be, rich and earthy with an undertone of spice.

Grilled polenta triangles came with a spoonful of romesco, that nutty red pepper and paprika sauce that's one of Spain's greatest contributions to the world.

The Moroccan spiced roast chicken over couscous with olives is deliciously complex and well-flavored on its own, but the addition of the side of smoky harissa sauce raises the dish from comfort food to a memory that will remain for months (my son said, 'Without the sauce, it's like eggs and bacon without the bacon').

From across the sea, the bouillabaisse was tasty but less stunning. The broth was too full of chunks of vegetables and didn't have the taste bud-popping quality of the chicken.

But that sense returned at dessert, where the pastries are made by the deservedly renowned Miss Zumstein (www.misszumstein.com).

Cream puffs stuffed with butterscotch cream, upside-down pear ginger cake with lemon cheese, crème Catalan - this is not a place to skip the last course. Zumstein's motto is 'Sweets make life sweeter.'

And Cava makes life, especially on Foster Road, sparkle.

-Audrey Van Buskirk

5339 S.E. Foster Road, 503-206-8615, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, $12-$17