Cava represents yet another step in the evolution (gentrification... call it what you want) of yet another Portland neighborhood. The well-appointed new bar and restaurant on SE Foster boasts a higher-end menu and a cozy dining room whose burnt orange walls and wood floors evoke a hipster hunting lodge (if such a place could ever exist in this world).
The space is great, thoughtfully designed and comfortable, and on the surface it appears to fit nicely into the Foster renaissance we've all been hearing so much about: Grab a nice dinner at Cava, then head up the street to the newish Slingshot Lounge for a drink and a game of shuffleboard. Sounds like a great evening in a formerly unwelcoming corner of town, right?
The problem is that Cava's menu fails to live up to the high bar it sets for itself. The highlight of both of my meals at Cava was sitting at a warm, comfortable table with a friend and a glass of wine, poring over the appetizing menu. It reads well, short and simple, with Mediterranean influences informing the selection without overreaching or seeming gimmicky. But when food actually hit the table, it didn't measure up to the promise of the space or the menu.
The butternut squash soup with brown butter and fried sage was a smooth, inviting orange tone, and the drizzle of brown butter on top was a nice touch—but when the dominant flavor note in your soup is butter, there's something wrong. (Vigorous salting helped.) And of her pork pâté starter, my dinner date dispiritedly noted that it "kind of tastes like salami."
Off the entrée menu, the bouillabaisse was hearty and didn't skimp on the seafood (though the accompanying rouille was overly sweet and just... weird), but the cassoulet (with white beans, duck confit, and sausage) was dry, the bread-crumb topping giving it a clumpy consistency instead of providing a counterpoint to what should have been a juicier dish. The fact that this dish was $17 and lacked an accompanying salad or vegetable side made it that much more dismal.
The Moroccan-spiced roast chicken on cous cous ($14) fared a bit better: The portion was huge (could comfortably serve two) and the chicken tender, though the presentation—what appeared to be half a roasted chicken plopped indifferently atop a bowl of greasy cous cous—left something to be desired.
I suspect the short sandwich menu is the way to go; a pan-fried pork Milanese sandwich was just fine, and reasonably priced at $8 with fries or a salad. (The crunchy, thin-cut fries would have been great, had they been hot, but unfortunately even the best dish I had was not without its flaws.) Next time I'd order the eggplant panini, with red peppers and goat cheese—can't go wrong with that—and wash it down with a pint off their short but carefully selected beer list.
Cava has been welcomed to the neighborhood, and rightly so: They do a lot right, particularly when it comes to the beer and liquor selection; it's a well-designed space, with friendly service; and friends who work in the area have been understandably enthusiastic about it—the hamburger in particular got several recommendations. But even if the burger is amazing—and even if I did hit Cava on not one but two off nights—the restaurant needs to work on consistency. The fact that there are no similarly upscale restaurants nearby doesn't give Cava a pass on quality; here's hoping they continue to improve their product, instead of coasting on the novelty of their location.