There's a reason you may have never heard of Cava. Its co-owner, Randy Montgomery, wanted it that way—at least in the beginning. While no one disagrees that Southeast Portland's Foster-Powell neighborhood is on the up-tick, making gritty Southeast 53rd and Foster a destination for duck confit cassoulet still seems a stretch. This is part of Cava's charm. Perhaps it's better to build momentum for a European-style gastropub in a neighborhood until recently known as "Felony Flats" slowly and by word of mouth. And sure enough, momentum is building.
Antique light fixtures dangle over custom-built wooden booths fashioned from reclaimed lumber, and the walls are painted a deep hue of pomegranate red (we're guessing that Montgomery's business partner and wife, excellent local artist Amy Ruppel, had a hand in the design). On a cold and windy night, a friend likened Cava's softly lit interior to being in the womb. I think of the space, which used to house a community center, as feeling the way a living room ought to. For a new restaurant, it's unusually comfortable—like it's been there for years.
Montgomery spent 10 years at specialty-food purveyor Provista, so it's no surprise that menu items are made from top-notch ingredients. Intensely seasonal salads (usually $7), like the one fashioned from watercress, beets, goat cheese and oranges, are excellent. Another salad anoints velvety leaves of butter lettuce with creamy green goddess dressing, avocado, radish and cucumber. The combo was as good as it sounds, but like a few items in Cava's repertoire, it seemed heavily salted.
Tidy triangles of polenta ($6) grilled to perfection paired flawlessly with a paprika-heavy romesco sauce so delicious my dining companion returned the following day for another helping. We were nearly as keen on an enormous pile of plump mussels served with taut fries ($7-$12). The dish would have been divine had the flat wine-and-garlic broth lived up to the excellent bivalves.
Cava's burger—ground sirloin on a dense house-made bun—is $8 well spent. It rivals Castagna's burger, which makes sense, since that's the restaurant where Cava's chef, JB Tranholm, once worked. The Milanese ($8), a pan-fried pork cutlet with ham, Gruyère and mustard on a housemade bun, is equally appealing, though on one visit the pork was overcooked and rubbery. Each is served with a mountain of fries.
Entrees are mainly Southern European-inspired, like the tasty bouillabaisse ($17), with tender slabs of cod, chubby mussels, clams and shrimp in tangy tomato broth served with grilled bread and a glob of garlicky rouille —a thick mayo often served with this French seafood stew. A comforting cassoulet ($17) of Great Northern beans, duck confit, garlic sausage and ham combined swine and fowl, but was capped with a sheath of salty breadcrumbs that took away from the dish's divine texture. Like most of Cava's entrees, both are enough for two. Seared rare, the grilled hanger steak ($15) was delicious, finished with maître d' hôtel butter and another heap of fries.
Not all is perfect in the dessert course. After a dreamy pear galette (all desserts $7), a coconut cream tart topped with a headdress of meringue looked gorgeous, but the meringue was graveled with bits of granulated sugar. A dense and delicious cocoa nib shortbread accompanied an espresso brûlée that featured an unpleasantly warm custard—its usual layer of blowtorch-hardened caramel arrived as a flimsy, sugary skin. Luckily, the pecan pie, that galette and the rotating cheese plate ($9) obviate the need to try anything else. Like its thoughtful roster of lesser-known, well-priced European red and white wines, Cava's dessert menu sports a variety of dessert wines for around five bucks a glass.
Cava is what Catalans call their bubbly, and it also means "cave" in Spanish, which fits the cavernous enclave perfectly. Seasonal and European-inspired fare in a setting that feels one part bistro and one part pub is exactly what Foster-Powell needed: a warm and unassuming spot that brings great food at a good price to a part of town that didn't know it wanted it in the first place. I wish it were in my neighborhood.
Cava, 5339 SE Foster Road, 206-8615, cavapdx.com. Dinner 5-10 pm Sunday-Monday and Wednesday-Thursday, 5-11 pm Friday-Saturday. Closed Tuesdays. $$ Moderate.