Cava is more or less in the neighborhood where I grew up and where I lived for many years as an adult, presumably after growing up. Foster-Powell is a working-class neighborhood, just slightly down-at-the-heels, so I was pleased, if a bit surprised, to see a restaurant with some aspirations open up there. Good on 'em; they earned a spot at the top of my list of places to try. After reading an orgasmic write-up in Willamette Week, I decided it was high time to check the place out.
On entering the restaurant the floor staff was very welcoming and made me feel sincerely appreciated and very much at home. The space is cozy and comfortable, with a small, porch-like waiting area at the front, and a medium sized dining area behind that. The dining area is windowless, so tends toward dark, is tastefully though sparsely decorated, and filled with vintage-style wooden booths and dining tables. Tables are a little close together, but not uncomfortably so. The overall feel is very "Portland"; slightly funky, slightly quirky, but very friendly and warmly welcoming. It's a very pleasant place to have a drink and a meal.
About that drink and a meal: I'd have to say my experience was different than WW's writer. On my first visit, having noticed Irish whiskey prominently mentioned on the drink menu, I asked for an Irish coffee to wash away the cold of a damp, blustery evening. Neither my server, nor the person tending the small, minimalist bar --who later turned out to be the owner-- knew what that was. I was a little surprised at this, but let it go.
Beside the small bar is the near-ubiquitous chalkboard with daily specials. From this I ordered Manila clams steamed in a tomato based broth, with chorizo and strands of thin pasta. The broth and Spanish-style dried chorizo were delicious, the clams fresh and tender, but about one third of the clams in the bowl had not opened. The next time my server came by I pointed this out to her. Since there were so many I suspected this was not because they were spoiled, but rather because they hadn't been steamed long enough, so I suggested she might mention this to the cook, and suggested that, next time, they might benefit from another half-minute or so on the fire. My server, though, decided to gather up the unopened bivalves and take them into the kitchen to show the cook. Shortly after, she brought them back with this message from the kitchen: "they should be OK".
I agree they "should" be, the question is whether they are. No-one who's eaten a bad clam will ever forget the experience, nor be anxious to repeat it. Apart from the matter of just how one goes about eating a clam that's shut tight (assuming one is brave or foolhardy enough to want to), there's the question of food safety. Unopened clams should never have left the kitchen the first time, much less come back to the table a SECOND time after the customer had called out the problem. There are two issues here: (1) failure to respond appropriately to a customer concern and, much more importantly (2) the kitchen's lack of awareness of basic food safety.
The Restaurant's signature dish is Cassoulet if WW's writer and the restaurant's menu are to be believed. This turned out to be a Goldilocks affair: some of the beans were overcooked, mushy and exploded, some were underdone, mealy and gritty, while some were juuust right. There was a nice hunk of garlicy sausage patty hiding among the beans, and a duck leg (drum and thigh) resting prettily atop. The chunks of duck confit were excellent, the sausage succulent, and the leg a promising golden brown. Unfortunately, it didn't live up to the promise. The skin was tough and leathery, and the meat just under the skin dried out and hardened from exposure to heat. Beneath this, the rest of the meat was still moist, but severely overcooked. The entire leg had the distinctive flavor of poultry that has been warmed over once too often, and I suspected my cassoulet was a backup that had been pulled out of storage and reheated for service. If this is a signature dish, I'd suggest remedial handwriting lessons.
The butternut squash soup, by contrast, was well executed; a thick puree of squash served piping hot and drizzled with brown butter, garnished with a leaf of fried sage. It was well made, but a bit ho-hum. The squash flavor didn't come through strongly, and no other flavors stepped in to take up the slack. There's nothing wrong with this dish, but there's no particular reason to waste time on it either.
The Morrocan Chicken fared much better, and raised Cava's kitchen considerably in my esteem. Half a chicken, rubbed in spices and oven roasted, arrives on a bed of delicately textured cous cous. The deeply perfumed chicken was flavorful and tender, the cous cous perfectly cooked, and dotted with olives and tender onions.
Desserts at Cava are similarly inconsistent. An apple crostata (a type of rustic tart) was overcooked, with scorched pastry and dried out apple slices. The angel food cake, on the other hand, was indeed angelic and topped with a blood orange compote which had a perfect balance of sweet/tart flavors, a lovely texture, and a deep, rich red color.
Cava's best asset, and the reason I'll return, is the floor staff. Service at this restaurant is exemplary, and a model for Portland's casual fine dining scene. The wait staff at Cava are genuinely welcoming, warm, charming, swift and efficient without being obtrusive. Their teamwork is a pleasure to watch, the staff are cheerful and obviously truly happy to provide their patrons with a pleasurable experience. The owner is likely to introduce himself to repeat visitors, and strike up a conversation. Randy, as he introduces himself, is also sincerely interested in making sure patrons are enjoying themselves, and is a great part of the reason they do. If the kitchen seems enthusiastic but inexperienced and inconsistent, the rest of the staff is equally enthusiastic, but much more polished and capable.
5339 SE Foster Rd, Portland, Oregon