MAYBE IT’S BECAUSE this winter was particularly cruel, but even though the sun and its warmth have finally arrived, I’m still struggling to come out of a discombobulating funk—one that, rather unfortunately, also got ahold of my taste buds. No matter what I ate, I didn’t really love any of it. (Of course, now that fava beans and leeks and peas and radishes are on the table, things are looking up.) However, there were at least a few restaurants that kept me sane, the most surprising of which was Cava.
I say “surprising” because I wasn’t sure I liked Cava the first few times I ate there. Opened last October, two doors down from a strip club on the unlikely corner of SE Foster Road and 53rd Avenue, Cava is one of the few joints in town that fits the bill as a gastropub—a British term, coined in the early 1990s, for a public house that specializes in high-end food rather than the usual lowbrow pub grub.
Because it usually comprises comfort food made with high-quality ingredients, gastropub fare has always appealed to me. But Cava’s atmosphere and service kept me on the fence about the place. I loved the rough-hewn tables; the private, carved booths; the church-pew-style benches; and the burnt-orange walls—but something also felt a little thrown-together about the space.
Maybe it was the fact that the iron-and-mica chandeliers hung from the ceiling slightly crookedly, or that I kept finding myself wanting to readjust what little art decorated the walls. Or it could have been that, except for the bartender, the inattentive waitstaff (of whom there always seemed to be too few) weren’t all that adept at keeping tabs on my table’s drink or food situation when the pub became even remotely busy.
On the other hand, the food, prepared by chef J.B. Tranholm, formerly of Castagna, continued to please me—not because it was anything new, but because it was precisely the kind of food I wanted to eat during my period of general malaise. And over time, I came to be able to count on most everything on the menu tasting good. By “everything,” I mean basic pleasures like perfectly grilled, medium-rare hanger steak and crispy, salty fries; pulled pork sandwiches in which the meat is drenched in a Carolina-style barbecue sauce; a rich duck shepherd’s pie enveloped in a buttery crust; and polenta topped with grilled scallions and a tomato-and-almond-based romesco sauce.
I found comfort in the simplicity and successful execution of each of these dishes. And I could have such comfort for a price that was reasonable enough to warrant more than one trip in a week: The menu offers a short list of sandwiches priced from $9 to $10, generously portioned appetizers that range from $3 to $11, and slightly spendier entrées in the $16 range.
But on repeat visits, I became enamored of one dish in particular, though I’m almost embarrassed to say what it was: a piece of toasted homemade white bread topped with wild mushrooms and shallots that had been sautéed and then cooked in a decadent thyme-spiked cream sauce. It was down-home food at its finest—a sort of locally sourced, upmarket, vegetarian version of chipped beef, and I ordered it as an appetizer with a warm salad of radicchio, endive, and escarole just about every time I visited. Something about that rustic, delightfully pedestrian slice of bread with cream sauce on top, accompanied by a bottle of far-from-pedestrian Arley’s Leap pinot noir from Cameron Winery (at $40, the most expensive bottle on a menu that offers most wines at $25 or less; glasses go for under $8) helped ease the dreariness of all those complicated facts of life that were holding me and my taste buds hostage.
Of course, not all is paradise at Cava. Once, a friend had to spit out a mussel because it was well past its prime, and another friend disliked the fact that they had brought out his hanger steak already sliced—something that a lot of restaurants in Portland do for some reason. “I’m not a child,” he said. “I don’t need them to cut my food for me.” Other dining companions just plain didn’t like the place: One called it cheesy; another called it slow.
I can’t argue with the latter. But the former? I’m not sure I agree. It’s a gastropub. It isn’t a décor-pub. We were supposed to be coming there for the food or, at the very least, a pleasant place to drink and be merry. And if the food and drink—no matter how unrevolutionary it may be—could sustain a winter-addled wretch like me, I can’t wait to see what Cava’s summer menu will do for my outlook. Rumor has it, they’re building a patio.