Back in September 2005, ~CAV~ opened right before the onslaught of wine bar madness, a wave that continues to forge ahead full-tilt in SF like Ebola. People twittered about how it would all work out, with the beloved Hotel Biron wine bar literally just around the corner on Rose. One big difference was CAV Wine Bar had a kitchen, one that people started knowing more and more for tasty eats, so they later added "& Kitchen" to the name. It's been an interesting evolution: now there's a big graffiti piece at the entrance, a red sign so you can find the place, all kinds of cool events, and a nice flow of regulars. And then there's their executive chef, Michael Lamina, who took over for Christine Mullen when she departed at the end of 2007 and is seriously rocking the vittles.
This is not simply a wine and cheese joint, although they happen to do one of my favorite cheese plates in the City (three/$20, five/$30). And I've heard the house-made platter of charcuterie is a champ here ($22). I just couldn't help being summoned like a zombie to the truffled leek terrine ($12) with crispy pig's ear and a wood mushroom salad. Yup, crispy little meaty fatty bits of pig ear (sorry, vegetarians, that must really turn your stomach), with a tender layered terrine of leeks cooked in a stock made from pig's feet. The leeks had awesome depth of flavor. The salad was a perfect (and needed) acidic counterpoint, with a bright dressing of Dijon mustard and lemon. You know when you taste a salad and you really notice it? Like, whoa, good dressing here? This was one of those moments.
In the decadent department, we have the duck confit potato cake ($14), and yes, you read that right--it was almost like a latke, crowned with a huge poached duck yolk. (No wonder I have to ride my bike everywhere.) Again, yay on the accompany salad, this one of braised chicories, with saba, walnut oil, and red wine vinegar. And again, a salad and dressing I really noticed. Downright flirty.
This is the kind of food that cries for spot-on wine pairings, and that's where you should really engage the staff here--and if you're lucky, you can snag owner and wine director Pamela Busch for some wine chat. The list has over 50 wines by the glass, so you can really play with a bunch of the elements in the flavor-forward food here. Busch has a wicked passion for cheese, and she's nutty about wines from the Loire, so those are especially two great things to talk about with her.
If you want to learn more from the wino brain trust here, sign up for the mailing list on the website for announcements on weekly wine flights, plus tasting events, and other seasonal events.
In case you were wondering what to pair with the aforementioned dishes, Busch paired an oh-so-drinkable Pyramid Valley Vineyards pinot blanc, 2006 (Marlborough, New Zealand; $14 glass/$48 bottle) with the truffled leek terrine, and chose the Joseph Swan zinfandel, Mancini Ranch, 2001 (Russian River Valley; $11 glass/$40 bottle) for the duck confit potato cake. Fun pairings--the pinot blanc did interesting things with the vegetal/piggy notes of the terrine, and the chicory salad made the zin go POW!
There are some larger plates, five in all, like a strong but smooth and sexy olive oil-poached black cod (I know, you thought I was describing an Italian guy there for a second) with caper berries, buttery leeks, and the inspired addition of pumpkin seeds ($21).
Lamina is also having fun with a nightly tasting menu ($50), if you're up for an evening of lingering over a full meal. Not everything was successful on the tasting menu one night (some kumquat rind was too dominating in a delicate tai snapper sashimi roll-up of sorts; a crepinette was tough); I felt a few dishes were still a bit in the experimental zone. But his notable flavor pairings were definitely there, which makes me want to try even more of his food--it's appetizing, and interesting, and elegant. He's an inventive chef, but also has a good foundation and technique (he was a sous chef at Grand Café, and a line cook at Farallon before being hired at CAV as a sous in 2006). One to watch, I say. And man, those salads.
The atmosphere is urban chic, with an eclectic soundtrack, a sleek look with metal tables, dim candlelight, hip servers, and a relaxed vibe. The look could be a little too minimalist/modern for the chintz-loving set who may be searching for a bite to eat before the ballet. I'd totally come to this place for a date (perfect for date one OR two) because there's usually enough buzz going on. There are tall tables more toward the front, and a counter that's great for solo flyers, but I prefer the more intimate vibe in the back, sitting under the cool cork installation.
It's also an easy place to swing by for a quick post-work/pre-dinner nibble, like some sweet potato frites with tomato jam, and a glass of something something. Or heck, a bottle with your pals.
CAV always has a little quirk; it can be someone in the staff, or the music, an unexpected wine, or something in a dish. I like quirky--it shows personality. And like an interesting person, it also continues to evolve; it makes for a good friendship.
CAV Wine Bar & Kitchen
1666 Market St.
Cross: Gough St.
San Francisco, CA 94102