Kavala is like a finely chiseled face with a crooked nose or a chipped tooth or maybe a misshapen beauty mark. There's a lot to love here. The trick is to separate those things that will make the casual peruser swoon from those only a mother could love.
Though the name denotes a town in Northern Greece, Kavala is in Oak Cliff. "I live in this neighborhood, man. I saw this place. I saw it floundering." What chef-owner Kelly Hightower saw was Starfish. It was dying. Starfish had no chef. Instead, kitchen hands, for better or worse, dropped coated frozen fish into fry baskets and roiled them in oil. Hightower ruminates: "I'm not sure if the food had a soul or not." Before there was Starfish, this space was a Dairy Queen.
But in the end, before it could die and orbit in "for lease" limbo, Starfish's owners called Hightower and handed him the keys. They handed him the lease too. Then the man went to work.
Hightower has a résumé that most any self-respecting Dallas chef would slaughter lambs for. The Mansion on Turtle Creek. Four years at Tei Tei Robata Bar. Stephan Pyles' AquaKnox ("It was kind of a mess, to be honest with you."). A stretch at Ziziki's. Hattie's in the Bishop Arts District.
At Kavala, the template is Greek. Usual suspects play their parts: pan-fried halloumi cheese, chicken or lamb souvlakis and pastitsio (Greek lasagna). From there the bloom spreads, devouring a juicy, salty hunk of the Mediterranean. There is refreshing gazpacho, a thickly chunked slurry bulls-eyed with a regrettable garnish of garlic croutons. Witness how its intense pepper flavor overshadows the celery and tomato acids.
There is some brazen non-Greek borrowing too. During his years at Tei Tei, Hightower took notes. Hence, octopus carpaccio, slick slices of spongy meat with a gelatinous shroud that ring a fluff of arugula in the center of the plate, octopus limb tips interspersed among the leaves. The octopus is quickly blanched before it's shocked in ice water. It's anointed with olive oil and coarsened with lusty lace-white grains of sea salt.
Does it work? If you're used to the tako in sushi restaurants, where the octopus is simmered for some 40 minutes in water flavored with sake, salt and soy sauce before slicing, this is a taste that requires some work. The slippery surface—the gel that lingers on the tongue while the teeth work its familiar briny hide—is the culprit. Refresh with some stinging arugula and go back for more until your senses are recalibrated.
Seared foie gras is covered in loose, drooped spinach leaves and rests on caramelized onion potato cake that drinks up the sun-dried cherry port reduction until it becomes an addled sop. The liver itself is fine, rich even, but there is too much sweet scrumming with too much pepper that in the end eclipses the meat. Livers, at least the ones from tortured water fowl, should have few chef fingerprints.
Reserve the heavy-handedness for the livers plucked from other birds. Pan-fried chicken livers "fra Diavolo," literally "devil brother," is a marquee dish, which stuns Hightower. He sells tons out of it and for some strange reason—boredom, egoism maybe—he pulled it off the menu. So says Hightower of his guests: "They would have none of it." The removal, he means.
So it remains, glorified by populist cravings. Hightower takes chicken livers and dredges them through a mixture of pulverized arborio rice, flour and cornstarch. He fries them. He slathers them in the chunky devil brother sauce that includes translucent onion shavings, barely perceptible flecks of corn, roasted tomatoes lush with juices and poker chip-thick chunks of Nueske's apple-smoked bacon that spread their fume throughout. But the sauce stresses the brittle coating, transforming selected tracts into a mushy slog, even as other patches valiantly retain the crunch. Mix the two—the mush and the brittle—and the livers meld into a heady yin-yang textural movement. With its smoke and puncturing acids and slashes of pepper, the livers and their metallic finish are left to hover in the shadows—which is probably as it should be.
Enter Kavala's on a summer evening through the lounge with its slate accents and hip ottoman placements and feel the shockwaves of heat spewing from the pizza oven. This is one of Kavala's chipped teeth, one that was hidden from view when the restaurant opened last February. A tall and slender bright white air purifier breathes in the lounge. Two more are posted aft in the dining room, which is outfitted with black tablecloths and napkins, teal banquettes, and a band of mirrors opposite the windows slatted with wooden blinds. Hightower says he installed these because he misjudged the amount of smoke and aerosolized fats that would seep from the open kitchen slat.
Servers tend to be a little slow and a little lean in their grasp of Kavala's menu and wine list. Our server couldn't tell us much about the food and not a thing about the wines, namely the Sicilian Rapitala Nuhar 2005 (mostly made from Sicily's Nero d'Avola grape). She deferred to another server who in turn deferred to a manager. "Full-bodied. On the dry side. A little spice to it," he said. (For teetotalers, Kavala has Mexican Coke, a remarkable drink formulated with pure cane sugar instead of corn syrup, otherwise known as Iowa pork.)
This is precisely the flavor profile we wanted to accompany the pan-roasted duck breast with creamy polenta in a spill of pomegranate-walnut sauce plus a side of warm salad with tomatoes and pecans—strange for a summer evening with a pizza-kiln heat boost. But the flesh, rosy and gray with perfectly crisped skin, is tender and lush, heavily flecked with pepper, which mows through duck fat nearly as vigorously as the Nuhar.
If he had his way, Hightower would keep his focus zeroed on jet-fresh seafood. But his clientele harbors other lusts. "Meat and potatoes, man, that's what people around here really love," he says. Hence the lamb chops with potato leek puree. The rib eye with pan-roasted marble potatoes. The spiced leg of lamb gyro is so stuffed with lemon oregano potatoes that you have to tear the dish apart rather than bundle them up with the tomatoes, onion, feta and thick half-moon hooks of cucumber in the pillow-plush pita and watch the cool milky tzatziki sauce laced with meat juices spurt from the ends like drain pipe.
The pink lamb burger—strangely juiceless considering its tincture—with feta on pita comes with house-made rosemary fries. When Hightower does get his hands on a slab of fish, he weaves wonders. Instead of pulverized encrustation, the pistachio-crusted halibut is stippled with whole nuts to keep the saffron chardonnay sauce from turning the crust into mealy mush. The fish merges with the sauce, beautifully subdued yet emphatic enough to speak through the pistachio screen.
Finish off with a gritty pineapple granita (the coarse Sicilian frozen dessert) with blueberries neatly ringing the hump of ice crystals rising above the sundae glass—the only suitable weapon to battle summer heightened with a pizza furnace breath.
1417 W. Davis St., 214-942-8100. Open 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Friday and 5 p.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday. $$-$$$
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