As its owners expand into Darien, Cava in New Canaan shows no signs of neglected first restaurant syndrome
Written by Wendy Logan
May 11, 2010 - At a recent visit to 55 Degrees in Fairfield, I learned that the owners were expanding with a new restaurant set to open in Darien in late June. Scena will be the third in a group of classy dining spots overseen by various configurations of one Ecuadorian family. The first in the chain, started by Vicente Siguenza and his brothers and sister, was New Canaan’s Cava Wine Bar and Restaurant. With a raised eyebrow, I wondered if this original location had suffered the neglect so common when successful restaurateurs become more concerned with feeding their egos than feeding the loyal diners who helped them reach their impressive levels of accomplishment. It was time to check in on the original.
While the service on a temperate Monday night was spotty, it was clear that Cava’s kitchen, under the direction of Siguenza’s sister Nube, still flourishes. Settled in at our outside patio table on charming Forest Street, we started our meal with grilled Montauk calamari, crab cakes and squash blossoms.
The squid, served whole, was topped with small tendril stars and garnished with greens flecked with red bell pepper. Meltingly tender, the calamari had a smoky overtone owing to caramelized garlic and a touch of sweetness added by a small squiggle of aged balsamic. The dish was good, though it needed more punch for balance that might have been provided by a simple squirt of citrus and a dash more salt.
Likewise with the squash blossoms that were stuffed with ricotta, battered, fried and served witha zucchini, yellow squash and radish salad. Bites of the crunchy, cheese-filled squash were texturally appealing but a touch bland. A vinegary marinade for the otherwise very fresh squash salad could have added the ideal counterpoint.
Highlighting our appetizers were the amazing crab cakes. Dotted with a tiny mince of sweet yellow and red bell pepper with celery and crunchy onion, the crispy, perfectly seasoned,meat-packed patties were coated lightly with panko crumbs that offered a beautiful, golden crust. A caper-lime aioli and another drizzle of balsamic rounded out the flavor combination and a bright pile of lightly dressed fresh greens completed the picture.
For entrees, pappardelle with fire-roasted, organic chicken, wild mushrooms, herbs and a hint of truffle oil sounded great but, as with some of the appetizers, it suffered a bit from under-seasoning. The homemade ribbons of pasta (nearly all the pasta here is made in-house) were cooked to perfection and tossed as promised with generous chunks of chicken breast and a mix of mushrooms. The aroma of rosemary was present as was a vague hint of truffle, but the dish needed salt or maybe a touch of white wine to make it pop.
Much more successful was the utterly ethereal panzotti chubby handmade pasta pillows filled with an exquisite roasted veal stuffing, scented with brandy, fresh thyme and rosemary. A smattering of micro greens, halved cherry tomatoes and fresh fava beans put this dish over the top and made us wistful for a full portion instead of the half that we had ordered.
The pan-roasted chicken’s crispy skin blanketed moist white and dark meat and offered a depth of flavor that came from a parsley and garlic marinade, salt and plenty of black pepper. The sauce of shallots and capers added zing.
As a final addition to our entrees, we decided to try the broccoli rabe and sausage pizza as well. It was stellar. The thin crust was slightly crisp but provided the “chew” I look for in a great pie.
The sauce provided just the right tangy tomato goodness, the crumbled sausage (also homemade!) was flavored generously with fennel and red pepper flakes for spice. The broccoli rabe was at once crunchy and tender. The cheese held it all together.
For dessert, we went with Nube’s tiramisu and the lemon tart. The tiramisu was light and fluffy, though heavily flavored with almond extract. The lemon tart was like a miniature slice of lemon meringue pie. The filling was tart, sweet and creamy-smooth. The graham cracker crust laced nicely with cinnamon, and the meringue was very light and delicate.
It appears that Cava has not suffered a crumb from this family's growing restaurant empire. I look forward to the arrival of its newest addition and in the meantime I'd recommend a visit to its anchor in New Canaan for a taste of what’s to come.