The big dig
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You could, if you were inclined, step into CAV Wine Bar & Kitchen and do nothing but drink wine. The establishment opened on mid-Market in 2005 as a wine bar, after all, and the wine list is so extensive that it's actually presented as a bound volume. I've seen less impressive Bibles. But you could also, if you were inclined, step into CAV and eat food while not drinking wine, and you wouldn't necessarily think you were missing out. Of course, the people at CAV don't want you to sunder food and wine, since the whole point of the restaurant is to bring them together with wine first among equals, for once. But it's a tribute to chef Michael Lamina's kitchen that the wine-friendly food can stand on its own. This is a nice corollary to one of my own cherished postulates: that many food-friendly wines are quite good on their own.
The name suggests a certain Iberian romance. It falls just one letter short of cava, the Spanish word for Spanish sparkling wines made in the méthode champenoise and also for "dig," with an implication of caves and candlelight. There is no dinner quite so atmospheric as one held in a candlelit underground chamber at a winery and unfortunately CAV isn't underground. It is narrow and deep, though, with a zigzag floorplan and a large multilight window at the very back of the rear dining room. The view through that window is of the famous alley where Zuni Café (which is next door) used to do its charcoal grilling nearly 30 years ago.
And the food does have its Spanish touches. The wine-friendly cuisines tend to come from the wine-producing parts of the globe, and this means, heavily, the Mediterranean basin and its California cousin. But we mustn't forget Germany, which produces many lovely, if floral, white wines and some reds too not to mention spaetzle, the butter-fried noodle squiggles that, in CAV's rendition ($6) are so delicious that we actually asked for seconds, long after we'd run out of other dishes we might have spooned the spaetzle alongside. Spaetzle would go very nicely with some grilled bratwurst, but at CAV it also makes a fine starter or share plate or just a little something extra to fill in the corners.
As for Spanish accents: we noted them in baby octopi ($13) expertly braised (meaning neither mushy nor tough) in a smoked-paprika broth littered with shavings of fennel root and fried chickpeas. Smoked paprika is possibly the most distinctive of the Spanish flavorings, whether in the cured pork sausage called chorizo or in a seafood dish, as here.
There was also a Castilian note in a salad of arugula leaves ($9), tossed with sections of satsuma mandarin oranges, almonds, shavings of Zamorano cheese (a hard, Parmesan-like sheep's-milk cheese produced on Spain's central plateau), and saba, a balsamic vinegarlike dressing. (Bear in mind that Italy and Spain spent centuries ruling parts of each other.)
In keeping with CAV's wine-bar roots, portions are not huge, and even the big plates, such as beef tenderloin ($25), are on the modest size. But for any number of reasons, this is fine; it helps restrain both expense and gluttony, it encourages exploration and sharing, and it tends to keep food and wine in balance. The tenderloin, a boneless but juicy piece of meat, had been pan-roasted to the rare side of medium rare, plated in a pool of jus-like marrow foam (foam! reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated) beside little heaps of blanched haricots verts and black trumpet mushrooms, then topped with a purée of caramelized onion. Earthy would be a succinct description of this dish; also autumnal perfect in a city of eternal autumn.
Not all the culinary influences are Mediterranean-derived nor otherwise associated with the lands of wine. We came across a plate of sashimi ($9) made from tai snapper (a sea bream from New Zealand), arranged atop a set of kohlrabi-stuffed spring rolls that looked like Tiparillos, and, for some color, slivers of kumquat and squirts of arugula puree. Beer would have been fine here, but so was a small glass of Schmelz grüner veltliner. (As is the case at several other wine-intensive spots around town, wines by the glass are available as 2.5 ounce tastes or 5 ounce glasses. Two cheers for sobriety.)
Desserts were startlingly good and not pricey by recent standards. There was a sniff of disdain from across the table at the prospect of a butterscotch tartlet ($7.50), since there are those who don't care for butterscotch. I'm not one of them; I've always responded to what seems to me to be a simple and irresistible blending of vanilla into caramel. The creamy butterscotch filling of the tartlet was that, yes, but it also had ... liquor breath! Someone had discreetly spiked it with Scotch whisky, and eating it was like giving a peck on the cheek to a boozy but lovable old aunt on Christmas Eve.
The chocolatepeanut butter cookies ($5 for three) arrived on the wings of higher expectations, and they did not disappoint. They resembled Oreos, except with an intense peanut-butter mousse as a filling rather than the sugary white stuff in the commercial kind. And as if that weren't enough, the kitchen threw in a bonus: a scattering of candied peanuts, like peanut brittle without the brittle. We dug that.
CAV WINE BAR & KITCHEN
Dinner: Mon.Thurs., 5:3011 p.m.
Fri.Sat., 5:30 p.m.midnight
1666 Market, SF
Wine and beer