Thursday, February 21, 2008

Dish on Dining: Cav Wine Bar & Kitchen -- CLOSED

A Delightful Overture to Any Night Out
UPDATE 09/22/10: The restaurant is now only open to private events and retail wine sales. No restaurant.
1666 Market St. (near Gough), San Francisco
Between the Hayes Valley and Mission neighborhoods
PH: 415.437.1770
Hours: Mon.–Thu., 5:30–11 p.m.; Fri.–Sat., 5:30 p.m.–midnight
Reservations, major credit cards accepted

A wine bar—traced back to the quick hearty bites and flowing wine of Italy—is the perfect place for a light meal, especially if you have no reservations and have other plans for the night. That’s the predicament I found myself in last night when I had plans to go to my first ballet performance for the season. Showtime was a little earlier than usual, set for 7:30 p.m.

Most restaurants in the nearby Hayes Valley neighborhood are packed with pre-show diners, and many won’t let you in unless you’ve made a reservation or have arrived more than 2 hours before the curtain rises. But when going out by myself, it seems silly to make a reservation for one (and despite my age I’m not really an early-bird special kind of guy).

So instead, I ventured not too far to Market Street to the Cav Wine Bar and Kitchen, which opened in 2005 next door to the venerable Zuni Café. Cav’s owner, Pamela Busch, is all too familiar with the Civic Center performance crowd since she used to own the wine bar Hayes and Vine on Hayes Street.

But Cav is far from the days of Hayes and Vine. Sure, you can still find an extensive book of wine choices along with prepared wine flights to taste. But that’s all augmented with creative dishes coming out of the kitchen. (According to its Web site, Busch heard the debate over whether Cav is a wine bar or a restaurant so often that she added the word “kitchen” to the name a year later.)

Since I was eating somewhat early, I didn’t have any problems scoring a seat at one of Cav’s zinc-top tables that surround the front bar. The zinc-top tables blend with the overall industrial feel of the décor, which included a massive graffiti mural and graffiti painting near the entrance. Initially, I thought the graffiti was an odd contrast to the sophisticated cozy feel of the bar. But after awhile I realized it was a brilliant commentary on Cav’s location. It sits at the part of Market Street that for years have been struggling between the dual identities of up-and-coming neighborhood with fine restaurants and antique stores and the reality of the homeless wanderers outside.

The kitchen is run by Executive Chef Michael Lamina, who started out as a sous chef at Cav but was promoted to top chef after Christine Mullen left last October. From what I can tell, Lamina has kept the Mediterranean approach to cooking that began with Mullen.

The menu is broken up to primarily two sections: one for small plates and another for large plates/entrees. I was hoping to see more among the small plate selection (I still had the idea of a wine bar in my mind despite the word “kitchen”) but that’s fine because I was able to zero in on two possible favorites: the Truffled Leek Terrine with Crispy Pig Ear ($12) and the Pimenton-Braised Baby Octopus ($12).

My friendly server scared me on my third choice of trying the house-made charcuterie platter ($22). I thought it might be a few slices but he said it was a pretty large plate of sliced meat. I decided to save that for another time when I could drag a friend with me. So I settled for the Seared Duck Breast ($21) because you know my rule about duck on the menu (always order it because it’s too much trouble to make at home).

Side note: Wednesday night is also when Cav offers a special weekly tasting menu for $50 (which doesn’t include accompanying wine flight). It was an enticing menu of three main tastes—lobster was included as an ingredient for one dish—and a dessert, but because I was worried I might be pushing it with my ballet performance, I also decided to save this for another time.

I feel like I should say something about the wine, given that Cav started out as a wine bar. The impressive list includes wine from all around the world. In fact, the list of California wines was a bit shorter than what I’ve seen at other California restaurants as Cav gave equal weight to California and the wines from Europe, Australia, South America, South Africa, etc.

Cav offers a special wine flight for the night (last night focused on Chardonnays) and wine by the glass, with prices for a full glass and a “tasting” (which is usually half a glass).

For dinner, I ordered a tasting of the Viognier from Kestrel of Yakima Valley to go with my two starters and a tasting of the “Cace è Mmittee de Lucera,” an Italian red wine from Alberto Longo Winery of Puglia, to go with my duck.

My leek terrine and baby octopus came together to start. Both of these dishes were served cold.

The terrine was interesting layers of soft, buttery leeks with a butter-like brown substance. But it was bland. However, it was saved by the contrasting flavors of the salad on the side, which was simply arugula dressed with an aggressive vinaigrette (quite welcomed given the bland terrine) mixed with crispy pig ears. The crunchy pig ears (I know, difficult to read, harder to write) was delightful. I’m not sure if it was because anything fried is good or that it was so vastly different than the leek terrine, but I could have just eaten a big plate of the pig ear salad and left happy.

My octopus had a very Spanish feel (and not just because it took on the color of the smoked paprika) with its tender texture and cold temperature. When traveling in Barcelona, I found that a lot of seafood dishes are served this way to highlight the freshness of the ingredient. It did just that, with its taste accented by the crunchy fennel underneath.

Finally came my seared duck, which was served with spaetzle and creamed mustard greens. While I love any seared duck, I was disappointed at this particular dish of the evening. The duck was a little overcooked, so it wasn’t as juicy as I’d hoped nor did it have the classic caramelized sear I’ve seen at other places. And it was sitting in a jus that was overly salted. The spaetzle (the traditional German pasta-like substance) tasted like bits of Cup of Noodles. The only redeeming factor of this dish was the incredibly tasty creamed greens on top.

Despite the unbalanced nature of the duck dish, I found Cav’s other dishes to be a nice blending of contrasting flavors, artfully presented and nicely enhancing the wine selection. The service is friendly and informed, adding to the hip neighborhood vibe and the casual approach to a night out.

Another side note: Cav has a nice dessert menu and cheese selection, but I decided to skip dessert and instead went across the street to the nearby Delessio Market and Bakery. That’s where I got a mini cupcake—the chocolate brownie with vanilla malt. It was such a perfect, sweet ending to my dinner that I was literally skipping to the ballet.

Single guy rating: 3.5 stars (Eat, drink, be merry)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner

Cav Wine Bar in San Francisco

BTW, if you haven’t been to the San Francisco Ballet, you should definitely check it out since this year marks the 75th anniversary of this world-class ballet in our very own backyard. The performances are always exuberant and refined.


Anonymous said...

ChefBen, I've heard a lot about this place but still haven't been... That's quite a pile of duck, looks like you had a lovely meal! Did you go to the ballet?

Single Guy Ben said...

Yes, it was a lot of duck, but I love duck. Even overcooked duck.

I did make it to the ballet with time to spare given the efficient kitchen of Cav Wine Bar. So a classic performance of Giselle. :)

agent713 said...

So let me get this right. You had COLD octopus and you blew your "friend food quota" on pigs ear...and liked it. Either you've got weird tastes or I have a lot to learn ;)

Now, the cupcake? That's right up my alley :D Oh, and the duck. Love duck. I'm sad it wasn't good for you.

Anonymous said...

Tried Cav Wine Bar -- nice you, we ordered the duck breast but I felt the red wine sauce was too salty. Also had butternut squash ravioli, which was pretty good. The best thing we had was an arugula salad with satsuma oranges, hickory almonds and saba -- a kind of sweet, balsamic vinegar. Overall, I think I liked the vibe of the place better than the food, though I'd definitely go back. Nice wine list. -- David

Single Guy Ben said...

Dude, why did you order the duck after I said it was "disappointing" in my review? Oh well, I do agree that it has a fun vibe and it's a good place to get a glass of wine and nosh on some nibbles.