Cava restaurant has been described as a culinary Mecca in midtown Toronto. Celebrated chef Chris McDonald and his co-chef and business partner Doug Penfold have apparently figured out the way to a real foodie's heart, and it's nowhere near a boneless skinless chicken breast.
Cava, named after the Catalonian sparkling wine, features a seasonal Iberian-inspired menu of small plates ($3.50-$19) with playful dishes such as caramel-chipotle popcorn, sardines two ways and adventurous delicacies such as beef cheeks, tripe and sweetbreads.
With an extensive and well-priced wine list, one of the city's first in-house cured meat programs and an exciting selection of Spanish cheeses, the restaurant remains a hidden gem, tucked in the corner of an outdoor plaza at Yonge and St. Clair.
After an inaugural glass of cava, of course, my two dinner companions and I started off with the must-have plate of jamon iberico ($25). The indulgence was worth the cost for this rare black-hoofed, free-range and acorn-fed pig from the Spanish village of La Alberca. With its smooth, nutty flavor and melt-in-your mouth texture, this type of ham was only imported to Canada last year and ranks up there with white truffles and beluga caviar as one of the finest foods in the world.
Next up, my favourite dish of the meal was the crisp fried Japanese eggplant paired with a buttery queso fresco, honey and tangy tomatillo sauce. ($8.75) The dancing bonito flakes that garnished the dish were a surprise. What a heavenly combination.
The octopus anticucho ($10.75) had a rustic barbecue flavor and was served with perfectly cooked lentils and a creamy, spicy romesco sauce that gave the dish a nice kick.
The Mediterranean cuttlefish and red wine stew ($15) was velvety and comforting. Served with fresh olive-oil-fried bread, my only complaint was that I wanted more of it to mop up the delicious black liquid.
To finish off, we indulged in a cauliflower and kabocha squash tagine with medjool dates and Spanish saffron ($8.95) and a stew of rabbit and pork belly topped with a warm cabbage salad ($19). The fragrant tagine was light and moist. Each piece of cauliflower was just slightly caramelized around the edges. The squash was earthy and sweet and the dates added great flavour and a lovely textural contrast. The decadent rabbit and pork belly with sweet chestnuts put us over the top but it was well worth it to try this bold play on comfort food.
In hindsight, we may have ordered too much, but the choices were hard to make with such an eclectic menu. Will definitely need to save room next time for Cava's critically acclaimed sister sweetshop, Xococava, next door.
We did however end the meal with some divine chorizo chocolate truffles that magically found their way to our table. A genius sweet and savory combination that I never imagined would meet on my tongue.