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Aug 9, 2010 02:31 PM

Review of Cava in Portsmouth

After our yearly weekend trip to Ogunquit, my girlfriend and I spent the day in Portsmouth on our way back to Western Mass last Monday. We enjoyed a beautiful day walking around the city and stumbled across a cozy looking wine bar and restaurant called Cava down one of the alley ways. After scanning over the outdoor menu board, we knew where we'd be eating for dinner.

We elected to go for the tasting menu for 2, which was $29 a person. Overall, I'd give the experience 3 stars. Like I mentioned, it was a very cozy space with a nice outdoor seating area and our waitress was extremely friendly and personable, in a professional way. The food presentation was gorgeous but ultimately we really only enjoyed two or three of the eight courses.

Some of my gripes:

- Our first course was a crostini with dark chocolate, sea salt, and a pistachio. I remember Michael Schlow talking about amuse bouche (a small, free 'course', usually served at higher end places), saying it should be really light and crisp. He mentions restaurants that serve cheese and crackers and says that rich, creamy cheese just coats your taste buds and dulls them to the delicate nuances of the courses to follow. I think serving chocolate as a first course would go against what Schlow preaches. On top of the thick chocolate dulling the taste buds, I really didn't care for the crostini being the vehicle to showcase the chocolate and to have what could pass as a dessert first was very puzzling.

- I remember reading an article where a study was done on how restauranteurs word their menu and how customers react to it. Two restaurants had basically the same menu but one used fancier words - 'haricot verts' instead of string beans, etc. The dishes off the menu that had the fancier words were ordered more often then when they were referred to by their usual American name on the other. It bugs me to no end when places calls fries 'frites' - please!! If you're eating them in this country, they're fries. It's like the people who call Target 'Tar-shay'. With that being said, patatas bravas, garlic aioli, herbs & sea salt sounds really interesting, but what we got were freaking home fries. Come on!! I don't have a problem with home fries, but don't call them something they're not, don't serve them outside of breakfast, and if you're a more upscale restaurant, I don't know why they'd be on your menu.

- Our scallop dish was really good, with a beautiful sweet corn puree, but they also served something on top of the scallop - like a shortbread cracker or something. I just didn't understand what its place was on the dish. Maybe for texture, but it really had a bland taste and took away from the beautiful puree, scallops, and chanterelles.

- We took some issue with the most beautifully presented dish, our hanger beef with bing cherries, cipollinis, and goat cheese. The steak was cooked to a beautiful uniform pink, perhaps sous vide'd, but was really lukewarm at best when it was served to us. The cherries were quite sour. The goat cheese really worked to counter-balance this and found that I had to first eat the steak with the onion, then finish with the cherries and goat cheese.

My favorite dish was probably the roasted dates with manchego cheese and serrano ham, as well as the desserts of berries with lemon curd and white chocolate, and golden pineapple, lime, and pomegranate molasses.

I understand their was a lot of time involved in putting together our courses so $60 seems like a fair price tag. We weren't particularly full leaving, and the fact that we took issue with a few of the dishes left us feeling like it was a middle of the road experience, although we were both excited to have taken part in our first tasting menu. We enjoyed our service and atmosphere and the issues with our food don't seem like it would take a lot to fix. I'd recommend stopping in and ordering off the tapas menu but would hesitate telling someone to get the tasting menu.

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  1. I've eaten at Cava a few times and really enjoyed reading your review, which, for the most part, I consider fair. I too love the roasted dates with manchego cheese and serrano ham and thought the crostini with dark chocolate, would be a better desert course due to its heaviness.

    Although I like the place, the food can be a bit hit-or-miss and I find the bottled wine prices exorbitant. One time we went and the whole staff was off in Spain to "do research." Cava was being manned by friends and former employees. The experience just wasn't the same and the food and service reflected that. I felt jipped and thought they just should have shut down for the time they were away. Another time I went and one owner was outside drinking wine and sitting at a table oblivious of what was going on around him. Overall I like the place, but, like you, I'd have to give it a 3 out of 5.

    2 Replies
    1. re: bewley

      Thanks for reading and taking the time to post. I'm really surprised about your experience there when the staff was off in Spain and I couldn't agree more that the place should have been shut down for the week they were away. I wish I could say it's amazing they know people that they trust their business with but your trip there reflects something else. It's not the cheapest place to dine and to not have the proper staff and chefs on hand was an irresponsible decision, IMO.

      My GF got sangria the night we were there, and I got a cocktail with bourbon and peach puree. My drink alone was $14 and I only justified the price tag because we were on a weekend getaway. I thought it was good but nothing I'd ever pay that money for again. Come to think of it, I paid close to that money on a cocktail at Daniel in NYC.

      Basing my experience with yours, maybe this place has a bit more 'maturing' to do before it can be something really special.

      1. re: bewley

        Glad they wanted to get some research. Its amazing how many "tapas" places have little or no first hand knowedge. You are right they probably should have just closed.

      2. Very accurate review. The wine list is outrageously priced, especially with so many restaurants now allowing guests to bring their own wine for a reasonable corkage fee. The food misses the mark of even a fair tapas restaurant. It is too bad because the location is quite nice.

        1. Interesting review, thanks for posting. I've never been to Cava but have to say, I think your criticism of the Patatas Bravas is a bit unfair. Patatas Bravas is a popular and ubiquitous tapa in Spain and is served outside of breakfast. If Cava is spanish-themed then this dish seems entirely appropriate and even welcomed for those who are fans of the dish. I don't know how tasty Cava's version is, but to this day I CRAVE some of the patatas bravas I had in Spain. Sorry their version of the dish let you down though.

          1 Reply
          1. re: foodquest

            We ate at Cava tonight and left happy, well fed and well cared for. The staff is attentive, the wine list unusual and the food some of the best of it's genre. Do not hesitate to try this very good tapas restaurant. We will certainly return when in the area.