Cava Serves Down-Home Comfort Food with a Latin Flair

If your oral surgeon misses by the tiniest fraction, that foolproof replacement tooth could end up cracking your mandible. Did you know that? I didn't either until I overheard what amounted to a dissertation on modern dentistry practices, complete with pain thresholds and gore and all the other stuff you never want to know about, particularly at lunch. The conversation flowed from two unabashed women one table over. Presumably the younger is somehow involved in the orthodontic world.

Cava is the type of place those who live and work around Preston-Royal treat as their own dining room. It's well-worn, for a new restaurant: walls scuffed from the room's previous iteration as Le Rendezvous and carpeting either dated or just plain drab. It's so informal you might just pull on sweats before heading over. The owners seem genuinely pleased that you've chosen their room for lunch or dinner, even more so if you return. On my second visit, Catalina Ocampo beams warmly. "Oh, you've come back," she says. "Do you work around here?" It's as if they can't imagine people from outside the neighborhood dropping by more than once. And folks from the area, their cars festooned with Sarah Palin bumper stickers, seem oblivious to normal restaurant manners.

So Ocampo leans in to explain Central American geography after the dentist and her friend ask where they could find this place called Costa Rica.



Cava Chorizo $5.95 Piquillo peppers $5.25 Gazpacho $4 �Amazing� Artichokes $10.75 Pear and walnut salad $12.25 Coconut shrimp $15.45 Chicken Proven�al $15.25 Lemon sole $21.45

She's from Colombia. Husband and co-owner, Xavier Miro, is Spanish. Both have a restaurant background: He served as general manager at Chic from Barcelona while she worked at La Duni, which explains the quatro leches cake. Cava refers to sparkling wine from the Iberian Peninsula (find that on a map, tooth-butcher). But the menu strays quite a bit beyond these bounds: French onion soup, tacos, a "Greek" hamburger and such. Their Provençal chicken features meat pounded nearly flat and quite supple, infused with warmth from a densely seasoned sauce. Caramelized onions, pine nuts, prunes and mushrooms surround the dish in a forest of flavors, from musky to earthy-sweet to the wine-dark richness of dried fruit. Despite sloppy presentation, it's a very pleasant entrée. On the other hand, a shallow dining plate of coconut shrimp yields completely to the sharp taste of orange zest, countered only by its own bitter undertow. Far from being "amazing" as promised by the menu, Cava's fried artichokes resemble a misbegotten attempt at fusing Tex-Mex jalapeño poppers and, um, I don't know what. Artichokes pinned by hidden punji sticks stand in for the jalapeño, and gushing cream cheese overpowers everything in its path.

But if you happen to chomp down on one of the toothpicks buried under the deep-fried crust, be glad there's a dentist handy.

In this part of town, folks ooh and ah over cozy places, whatever the food is like. While a group of 40-something mothers filled a nearby table with declarations of "this place is wonderful" and "everything is good here," I squinted through a cup of gazpacho so ripe it was like sipping vinegar, the sour sting broken only by garlic. Yet there are some rather wonderful dishes here. The owners build one appetizer around Spanish-style chorizo, which shows more subtle and intricate flavors than the Mexican version. Piquillos roasted until their flavors mature and then drizzled in garlic and olive oil make for a simple and very satisfying dish, as well as an example of tapas before small plates became trendy.

Ocampo, indeed, looks a bit surprised when I responded to the standard "how is it" question with "These are great."

"Have you lived in Spain?" she asks.

No, no. It's just that when the restaurant hits at rustic, traditional fare—the kind of thing familiar to her husband, Miro—the kitchen begins to earn its praise. Even a staid old recipe like lemon sole, updated with a splash of lemoncello, feels laid-back when plated sloppily. The home-style appearance complements its simple progression of flavors, the faintly murky background conveyed through buttery sauce until citrus and capers disperse the lot in time for your next bite.

The owners do much of the front-room legwork, and things bog down on busy nights. But that's part of the charm, right? There's one other thing to note about the restaurant, however. Waiting any significant amount of time for a friend to join you is a lot like, well, being stuck in the path of an approaching tornado with only two options for shelter, neither of them good. OK, maybe a tornado overstates the possible drama. An approaching horde of dental assistants, perhaps? The dilemma is this: Do you wait at the bright little bar inside Cava which, ironically, has no liquor license and thus offers no relief from the tedium, or do you wander over to the other side of the shopping center and grab a drink at Ruggeri's, the kind of dark-hulled spot where old men with flowing nostril hair hang out.

Obviously, the less depressing choice would be to loiter by the car for half an hour, but considering the Italian place might serve real alcohol, I ended up there. One martini and a whopping $12 receipt later, I was back at Cava, bitching silently...although it was probably worse for my dinner companion, who rushed from daylong meetings, desperately in need of a drink and thinking (as I had) the restaurant's name promised flutes of good sparkling vintage.

Oh, there's a good side to BYOB places, obviously. I mean, that $8 bottle of wine doesn't get the triple-markup treatment, so dinner ends up costing much less. To pair correctly, however, you need to bring a nice selection or know ahead of time whether a red or white—not to mention sweet or dry, oaked or unoaked and all the other variables—goes best with your order.

Just be forewarned: If you forget to bring your own, dinner will be accompanied only by a glass (plus a top-off or two—they're nice people) of the free house red. Forget and forced to wait for someone? You're in trouble.

But it's hard to stay angry, once you've settled in.

Cava 5934 Royal Lane (southwest corner of Preston Road and Royal Lane), 214-361-2277. Open 11 a.m.-2 p.m., 5-9 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Sunday. $$-$$$

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