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Cav Wine Bar & Kitchen

Get Wined and Dined

As the latest home to Pamela Busch, former owner of Hayes and Vine, and Tadd Cortell of The Public, it's no surprise that Cav would boast an exceptional wine list (upwards of 300 bottles) covering a broad spectrum of tastes and regions (roughly 70). But what might be a shocker is that this year-old nook of a wine bar also serves a Cal-Mediterranean-comfort food-inspired menu that might tempt you away from what could end up being a liquid-diet-kind-of-night. Cav has even been known to lure folks away from next-door Zuni and nearby Hotel Biron.

While it's easy to miss the Spartan, all-glass entrance off of Market Street, the sleek, elegant interior is invitingly intimate, setting the stage for a romantic date or a mellow evening with friends. As we settled into our table, details like the pendant lamps, cork board wall, and dramatic flower arrangements came into play. Then, as the knowledgeable staff steered us expertly through the dense wine list, the hustle of Market became a distant memory.

Busch's terroir-driven wine list is obscure but very accessible, each wine described in a brief, matter-of-fact fashion that reflects Busch's candid, friendly tableside manner. Each week part of the large list of wines by the glass (roughly 40) focuses on a different region, for example a little tour of Spanish whites, or an overview of bottlings from Washington State. Typically, the bulk of offerings come from abroad: France, Spain, Austria, and Italy. On one visit, the only domestic wine on the list was produced by a little-known (but very dear) Napa family winery called White Rock -- not something you'd find on the supermarket shelves, to be sure. Besides the by-the-glass list, around 300 bottles are available to accompany the small plates menu.

Formerly at Rubicon, chef Christine Mullen is creating a menu that's coming into its own. During my first visit it was clear that the menu lacked a well-honed focus, yet with each new visit, it's evident that the menu is evolving. The best approach to eating here is to stick with one theme while ordering. If you do, you'll be pleasantly satisfied. The "bites" seem geared toward heartier, comfort foods, while the "plates" skew towards a sophisticated Mediterranean influence.

For lighter fare, the artisanal cheeses (about 15 selections), antipasto platter, salumi platter, olives, and house-made charcuterie are sure-fire successes that pair well with the wine. If you don't want a meal or you're planning on eating before or after, the cheese plate (3/$16) is the way to go.

For a clean, modern dinner to accompany your wine, order one or all three of the tartare trio ($11 each/three for $17). The classic steak, made of locally raised, grass-fed beef with a quail egg mixed in, might be the most traditional of the three. Fungi lovers will want the wild mushrooms with truffle aioli and mushroom chips all to themselves. Finally, sushi buffs will delight over the hamachi with sesame, soy, radish, and daikon sprouts -- its refreshing flavors pair well with a crisp white.

Of the plates, our favorite was the spice-crusted ahi tuna ($20). The mostly rare tuna was sliced in generous pieces and placed atop a hearty, stewed eggplant with crispy chickpeas. The pimenton-spiced shrimp ($18) with saffron was another winner, but the accompanying paella croquette was heavy and did little to bring out the flavors of the shrimp.

Vegetarians can eat well here too. Start with the previously mentioned mushroom tartare and don't miss the pierogi ($8) made of potato and caramelized onions and resting on a bed of cabbage cooked with white wine and caraway. A drizzle of beet relish and sour cream add an edgy touch to the simple dish. For some crunch in your meal, opt for a salad like the cucumber and Greek feta salad with Champagne-lemon vinaigrette ($6).

The weakest part of the menu would be the bites. The rich butternut squash gratin ($7) is a nice autumn dish that's a meal in itself, but the crispy smelts ($10) were a dish that we'd skip if we could to do it all over. Deep-fried with a thick batter, they're so heavy that one would only want one or two, instead of the big bowl full.

The dessert (all $7) menu consisted of a scant three items, which made it uninspiring. On one visit they served boca negra -- a decadent flourless chocolate cake, but it wasn't on the menu on the next visit. Neither the coconut pot de crme, snicker bar bites, nor the mascarpone panna cotta could tempt an easy-to-satisfy sweet tooth. Luckily their German Eiswein hit the spot.


Wine/California-Mediterranean
Hayes Valley
$$$

Reservations essential? No