Friday, May 05, 2006

Cav Wine Bar - San Francisco, Ca

Went to a Velvet Revolution poetry reading with Scott and made indefinite plans to eat afterward. We'd eaten at Cav once before. I thought it was solid but I think we didn't give enough attention to the menu--opting for a couple tasting trios, yam fries, and cheeses. Figured we'd return and tackle the menu full-on.

Me and Chef Scott.

The Space:
A literal storefront next to Zuni, easy to miss. After the entry corridor there are tall bar tables on your right and the L-shaped bar to your left. Straight back fromt he end of the bar is the dining room (dining chute?) with an L-shaped set of banquettes along the left and rear walls, and a few stand-alone two-tops along the right wall.

The Wine:
So Cav is a wine bar and the do have a lot of wine from all over. Some 30+ wines by the glass or taste, and another whole lot by the bottle. They also do featured wine flights each week--I'd done a riesling flight in the past that was phenomenal (even had a 1979 riesling), interesting, and educational. This time I went for the Sauvignon Blanc flight. This one was more rote and fairly uninteresting. It was simply recent vintages of a New Zealand, an Italian, a Napa, and a Sancerre. They were decent, just not very interesting--I wasn't tasting anything exciting. Scott went with a couple reds that had a similar problem, they weren't distinctive. In fact, a thorough perusal of the wine list showed it remarkably lacking in any particular compelling wines or vintages earlier than 2001. This would be fine in a restaurant wine list where you're looking more for versatile food wines, but at a self-described wine bar one of the draws should be the opportunity to try interesting, rare, and exciting wines. I'd gladly put down $10, $15, $20 for a 2-oz. taste of an exciting wine--something I'm not going to find many other places (nor could afford a full bottle of). When I think back at how much we spent on wine at Cav and how many bottles of modest, inoffensive wine I could've bought, it makes me sad. I don't mind spending money on wine--I just want something interesting. As a plus, our two ports that we finished up the meal with (a 1986 Smith Woodhouse Colheita tawny and a 1980 Grahams vintage port) were pretty tasty with lingering complexities.

The point is, I think Cav needs to give its wine by the glass program a kickstart. It's a perfectly serviceable--even good--wine list for a restaurant, but not for a wine bar.

Round One:
We started off with their tasting trios--a charcuterie and a mediterranean sampler. The charcuterie featured chicken liver mousse with red wine gellee. This was an ample portion, served in a little cazuela. It was inoffensive, though tasted very similar to the various chopped liver preparations I've had at Passover celebrations. The country duck pate was quite good--surprisingly meaty and full of flavor. The rabbit rillettes--I'd never had rabbit before--were also good with a nice strong flavor without being overly game-y. The house-made pickles were a nice mix of veggies, though the pickling brine was way too acidic. I love all things pickled and I love vinegar in general, but honestly these could have a used a rinsing a re-dressing before service. That was weird thing number one. The other weird thing was that the baguette slices we got were borderline stale. I don't know if they were old or cut too far in advance or what but it was pretty bad. Either use better bread or serve toasts (or don't do bread at all). The accompanying mustard was nice (don't know if it was house made).

The Mediterranean sampler consisted of lamb-filled filo (mini spanakopita) which was great, a creamy eggplant dip with accompanying flatbread--I found the dip to be too tangy and not eggplant-y enough and the flatbread was glutinous and chewy. The swordfish skewers were nicely seasoned with an accompanying raisin and onion mixture that was tasty. The fish was cooked perfectly--not dry or overly meaty.

Round Two:
Here we went after the bigger plates, though we opted for the tapas size. Cav has a cool option where their entrees come in two sizes, one half the price (and presumable half-ish the size) of the other. I appreciate the presentation of a choice--it allows those weirdos who like to eat the same thing for an entire meal the chance while still preserving the wine-frinedly tapas style.

The cornmeal crusted barramundi with cornbread-stuffed clams was mediocre--the fish itself (a white fish from the South Pacific, aquacultured in Australia, Indonesia, and Thailand too--not sure of Cav's source) was delicate to the point of blandness and the cornmeal crust was a touch soggy and underseasoned. The pair of manila clams covered in cornbread crumbs were a great mix of sweet and salty--make an entree out of six littlenecks done the same way and I'd be in heaven.

The crepe with spring vegetables, goat cheese, and onion jam was tasty but unremarkable (I had a similar thing at Bendean and I'm probably conflating the two). The crepe itself was a little chewy (somebody mixing the batters too much at Cav?) and the filling was inconsequential. The accompanying vegetables were cooked nicely and very fresh.

Like À Côté, the cheese at Cav is the runaway highlight of the meal. Cheeses come with a fresh fruit, membrillo, almonds, walnuts, olives, and more of that damn stale bread. Combine that with generous portions for $5 each (or rather, 3/$15, 5/$25, or a sampling plate for $95, While the wine list lacked compelling diversity, the cheese plate is loaded with interesting cheeses from all over the world. The selection is about half cows' milk, the other half evenly mixed between sheep, goat, and blended milk cheeses. Raw milk cheese is available in all milk types too. We went with the Abbaye de Belloc (a semi-hard raw sheep's cheese from the Pyrenees), the Bleuet de Chevre (a blue goat cheese from La Vernelle), and Coolea (a semi-hard cow cheese from County Cork). The cheeses were all nice, sharp, and fairly strong. The goat blue was great--especially with a slice of membrillo. I was also a fan of the Abbaye. The cow cheese was a little too mild for my tastes. The point is though, Cav has a great selection of cheese presented artfully (and priced very reasonably).

In Conclusion:
I honestly don't think I'll be back to Cav to eat--the food was pretty good, but execution was poor in some cases and the flavors were fairly unremarkable. A lot of high-concept cuisine without the finesse to finish the job.

I probably also won't be back to Cav to drink--unless an interesting flight comes around. As we found, wine is freakin' expensive (making a full half of our tab at Cav)--which isn't necessarily bad, but paying as much for wine by the glass (bottles are a different story) as food is annoying when not a single sip was anything remarkable (or even remotely memorable)--except for the ports.

As another note, the service was scattershot. Our meal took a laborious two hours, which for a small-plates meal ordered at once is pretty ridiculous. We waited close to half an hour between "courses" (even though we didn't order in courses), wine glasses and plates sat empty for a long time, and the food runner misidentified our cheeses. Service was friendly to be sure, but it just took too long for what we got. I'll gladly wait an hour for chicken at Zuni, relaxing, drinking wine, and enjoying appetizers, but when the food is five-minute fire tapas and the restaurant is a third full--that's just wasting my time.

In the end, Cav was Scott and my most expensive meal to date (though it did feature roughly twice the wine of previous dinners), and it was far (far) from being worth that distinction.

Cav Wine Bar
Cuisine: Mediterranean-tinged Eclectic
Price range: "Bites" $3.50-$15; "Plates" $5/$10-$10/$20
HFF's cost for two (two "bites," two "plates," three cheeses, six glasses of wine, tax, 20% tip): $170
Reservations: No.
1666 Market St. (at Gough)
San Francisco, Ca 94102

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