Upscale-causal is one of the most enticing restaurant niches these days, though it also might be the most ambiguous. Both upscale and casual can mean radically different things to different people, and when you combine them, anything can happen.
But rather than nailing down just what sort of food or service is appropriate for any dining category, it’s usually more instructive to watch how people use a particular restaurant. For the past few months, Lakeview’s new Cava has been offering something of a case study on upscale-casual in action.
Cava opened in April with well-known maitre d’ Danny Millan at the helm and a comparably unknown chef, Adam Asher. It’s a bistro with a sleek and modern design that extends from the tightly packed, often loud first floor dining room to a second floor, where a balcony will offer outdoor seating beginning in the fall.
The wine list goes on for days (or, more precisely, to 300-plus labels), and within a week or so, Millan expects to expand it further with several dozen cavas, the restaurant’s namesake sparkling wine from Spain.
This is easily the most ambitious restaurant in its vicinity, but Cava can feel like a neighborhood hangout as well. For everyone who looks like they may be here celebrating a birthday or anniversary, there’s a guy dining solo after a long day in the office or two ladies sharing a booth and a few apps on a Tuesday.
One key aspect of the upscale-casual equation here is Asher’s knack for taking familiar Louisiana flavors in unexpected directions. That means a meal that starts with comfort food cravings doesn’t have to be predictable.
For evidence, see the crab cake trio ($11), which reconfigures crab cakes as two-bite crab croquettes dabbed with creamy, slightly frothy, Crystal hot sauce-spiked sabayon.
Another example is the rabbit remmy ($10), which stacks fried green tomato slices between layers of rabbit braised down to the texture of rilletes, dressed with a spicy remoulade and decked with bright bursts from fresh blueberries and raspberries set against deeply smoky diced bacon. It works like fried green tomatoes, charcuterie and salad in one dish.
Cava has been sourcing some of the largest soft-shell crabs ($25) I’ve seen this year. Fried, halved and plated upright, they look like great jagged beasts emerging from a pool of corn maque choux with peppery watercress and a gilding of watermelon jelly (think pepper jelly but with a mellower sweetness).
Asher also has been making a frequent special from fried soft-shell shrimp ($10). Like the crabs, these are harvested at their most plump, just before molting, and they burst with flavor. Fried whole, they had a Korean-style soy sauce when I tried them, though Asher has since switched to more of a Creole treatment with tomatoes and remoulade.
This modern Louisiana menu makes room for plenty of mid-range dishes, with entrees in the teens. There’s a filet mignon ($30), sure, but also, for nearly half its price, a tender, crackling-crusted cutlet of fried chicken ($16) set against forest-green Swiss chard seeping red juice like a tart gravy underneath.
One of the most striking dishes on Cava’s menu involves crawfish and pork meatballs set over pitch-black squid ink spaghetti ($16), which imparts a subtle savor accentuated with lemon oil and salty, creamy crumbles of queso fresco. The flavors dial right back down to local tradition for desserts, like bread pudding ($8) that arrives with the aroma of a donut shop and sauces painted on the plate in stained-glass patterns.
The mix of high-end trappings, accessible prices and easy welcome seems well-attuned to Cava’s Lakeview neighborhood, and that dine-anytime appeal recommends it for a cross-town visit when you’re up for anything as long as it’s good.
But if upscale-casual is more a feeling than a list of criteria, that feeling is embodied by Millan, the restaurant’s owner. After close to 30 years working in New Orleans fine dining, he has evolved a touch as maitre d’ that can make you feel as though the room has been orchestrated around your visit, even if in reality you’re just dropping in for a weeknight supper at the bar.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.