Portsmouth Eats: Fall Chef's Tasting Menu At Cava

I had my final wedding dress fitting last Friday! The dress fit... and now it just needs to be pressed and cleaned and picked up before the wedding. My friend Kathleen joined me for the fitting so she could learn how to bustle my dress (boy is it complicated), and then we planned to stay in the area at her fiance's mother's house for the night.

After my fitting she took me out for a birthday dinner at Cava, a restaurant I had gone to with my mom and sister the day we bought my wedding dress.

We had reservations at the chef's table, which is a bar counter facing the kitchen, but the people sitting there weren't quite done with their meal yet, so we sat at the regular bar, where we were able to make conversation with and get drink recommendations from the knowledgeable bartender and still see the kitchen whenever we turned around.

We each started with a glass of wine. Kathleen went with a Sauvignon Blanc, but I was finally ready to give up on summer and embrace the cool fall weather, so I warmed up with a glass of Malbec. (No turning back now.)

Cava has an a la carte menu, but the chef's tasting menu is the way to go. As long as there are two people in your party who want it, you can order it. It's 9 courses for $29! We both easily agreed on doing the tasting menu.

We started with the red crab and granny smith apples, topped with sea beans and mache, and served with some finger lime pulp. I had recently learned of the existence of finger limes and was excited to try them. The pulp was slightly bitter but noticeably lime-y... and very small. It resembled caviar. Even though this dish was well composed and had a good range of flavors and textures, I liked it least of all the dishes we had that night. But wait til you see what else we had...

Red crab and Granny Smith apples at Cava, Portsmouth, N.H.

A parsnip cappuccino was next. This was a creamy parsnip souplike beverage topped with fragrant nutmeg and vanilla froth. It's so interesting because the way it's served makes you think you'll be having espresso, but then it has all these different, more savory flavors.

Parsnip cappuccino at Cava, Portsmouth, N.H.

A porcini porridge made with steel-cut oats arrived topped with chanterelles, escargot, and burgundy truffle and sat atop a bright green, herby puddle. My first experience with escargot (somewhere else) was not a pleasant one, so I was a little hesitant to try these, but the texture was much better, similar to mushrooms, tender but firm, without being chewy. And the porridge makes me want to use steel-cut oats in a savory application at home.

Porcini porridge at Cava, Portsmouth, N.H.

A simple bowl of roasted brussels sprouts, squash, and pomegranate and pumpkin seeds was full of caramelized flavor and a perfect introduction to the fall weather upon us.

Roasted brussels sprouts and squash at Cava, Portsmouth, N.H.

The lentils with pork belly, bacon, and apple were also perfect for the fall. The lentils had flavors similar to baked beans. The pork belly was crispy and crunchy, the way I prefer it. And the apple added a welcome sweet note.

Lentils with pork belly at Cava, Portsmouth, N.H.

A brothy soup with a clam, a tender chunk of cod, diced potatoes, and chorizo was light and nicely flavored with saffron and a touch of bottarga for saltiness. We asked for bread when this dish arrived, so we could sop up the broth.

Clam chowder at Cava, Portsmouth, N.H.

At this point, we were both ready for a glass of wine, and we were about to go with 2 1/2-ounce glasses of a syrah blend (Cava offers 2 1/2- and 6-ounce glasses) when the bartender suggested we try one of his favorites: 2009 Grenache, Alto Moncayo "Veraton" from Spain. He said it would go great with our beef course (coming up next) but also with dessert if we had any left by then. And he was, of course, right.

While chatting with him about the wine, we also learned that Cava sells wine by the bottle not just for consumption in the restaurant but for retail too. The retail prices are lower than the in-restaurant prices. If you have a bottle you really enjoy at dinner, you can buy one right there to take home. I thought that was pretty cool. And the wines are unique to the area. You can't find them at the rampant New Hampshire liquor stores.

By far, the most interesting dish of the evening was the sliced sirloin with berries, chocolate, cacao nibs, sweet potato puree, and house made marshmallow. It just seemed like a mess of flavors on a plate, but they worked so well together. I loved the chocolate with the medium-rare beef and the sticky marshmallow pulling the rest of the components together. (The bartender told us the chef has been playing around with this dish for an upcoming event at Arrows.)

Sliced sirloin with berries at Cava, Portsmouth, N.H.

A chunk of golden pineapple with pomegranate molasses and lime zest was the perfect segue from dinner to dessert.

Pineapple with pomegranate molasses at Cava, Portsmouth, N.H.

Dessert screamed fall. It was a moist pumpkin cake with maple, ricotta, pumpkin seeds, granola, and cinnamon-sugared crisps on top.

Pumpkin cake at Cava, Portsmouth, N.H.

At this point, Kathleen's fiance and his mother had finished their dinner out together and they joined us at the bar as we finished dessert. The bartender found out we were both engaged and getting married soon, so the kitchen sent us a little something to celebrate: churros and chocolate, a combination I don't believe could ever be wrong. We all enjoyed the light, airy churros and the rich chocolate sauce.

Churros and chocolate at Cava, Portsmouth, N.H.

Sitting at the bar has another advantage too. We got to see all the interesting drinks the bartender was mixing up. One caught my eye as I saw a ruby-colored puree go into the glass, so I asked what it was. It goes by the name Salty Shake and features RumChata (a creamy rum liqueur), house made blackberry puree, and a few other things I'm forgetting. We decided to share one among the four of us, and the bartender split it among four glasses for us. It tasted very much like a strawberry milkshake--the type of drink that can be very dangerous because it's so good and so drinkable. Kathleen's fiance loved it so much, he ordered another one.

Salty shake at Cava, Portsmouth, N.H.

This was my second visit to Cava, and I loved it every bit as much as the first. From the food to the drinks to the service, the restaurant is incredibly impressive and a must visit if you're ever in Portsmouth. Thanks for taking me out, Kathleen!

Do you like to try tasting menus or do you prefer to order a la carte?

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