Small plates, big flavors

The dress code at Cava states that one “must wear clothes,” hinting to the relaxed and fun atmosphere at the Greek mezze restaurant, wine bar and martini lounge that is the latest addition to Barracks Row.

And whether it is baseball fans showing up in jerseys, groups of women dressed up for a night out, couples on a date or parents looking for a quick yet grown-up bite, the attention will shift to food from clothes fairly quickly.

Diners have enjoyed Chef Dimitri Moshovitis’s creations since late 2006 at Cava’s original location in Rockville, Md. With mezze being the Greek equivalent of Spanish tapas, the menu is a collection of small plates that are suitable for either a quick meal after work or a drawn-out dinner with a large group. And the new restaurant, much larger than the Montgomery County hotspot, can accommodate plenty of diners. It boasts a handful of outdoor tables, an upper-level seating area and a rooftop bar.

The main-level dining room is usually packed, but the service from the attentive denim-and T-shirt-clad wait staff (with a very high eye-candy quotient) does not suffer. The meals start off with a basket of warm pita bread accompanied by a trio of olives, olive oil and a spicy (sometimes too spicy) tomato-paste spread. The servers know the menu and take time to help explain the mezze concept to the uninitiated. The atmosphere is busy and tables fill up quickly. The orders come out fast but the meal is never rushed. It’s a good place to take a first date or go on a 47th, use as an alternative to a post-work wings-and-chicken-fingers spots or bring visitors looking to eat at a locally owned joint.

If dining with a group, the “Cava 4” is a great way to sample some of the cold mezze options. Don’t be fooled when the server brings over a plate topped with what looks like ice cream scoops. They are bread dips — creamy enough to fill a piece of pita yet thick enough to spread with a knife — each with different qualities.

The Crazy Feta mixes the Greek cheese staple with the completely unexpected zing of jalapeño pepper. This disappeared off the plate first. The dip is spicy, but the feta’s flavor gives the jalapeño a slightly different taste from what one would find on a pile of nachos. The taramosalata dip is whipped salmon roe with just enough lemon to accent the saltiness but not overpower it. Ktipiti also contains feta, but it is chunkier than what appears in the Crazy Feta spread and here is blended with roasted red peppers and thyme. The Skordalia is pureed potatoes mixed with garlic and extra virgin olive oil and topped with walnuts. At first, the Skordalia comes across like a watered-down garlic-mashed potato, but the intense garlic flavor grows with each bite.

The saganaki is another must, but sadly, the new location’s modern wood design and leather ceiling do not allow for the table-side spectacle of setting a slab of cheese on fire. (Visit the original Rockville location for the whole experience.) Saganaki is made of Kefalograviera, a hard sheep’s-milk cheese, soaked in booze then set aflame in the kitchen. A server squeezes a lemon over the melted cheese to put out the flames. The result churns out what can best be described as a sophisticated cheese stick. It has a crunchy outer shell with the melted Kefalograviera oozing out of it. The cheese has a stronger taste than feta, and the brandy gives it a little more bite. It is extremely tempting to order another one of these, but with so many other small plates to try, it is best to explore other options.

Moving on to the meats, the lollipop filet brings two tender pieces of steak, cooked to order. It’s topped with a grilled jumbo shrimp covered in slightly melted feta-and-tomato mixture, which is then topped with oregano and other spices. The server is quick to point out the meat can be put back on the grill if it isn’t cooked right, but it arrives medium — just as ordered.

There are also attractive mezze options for seafood lovers. The scallops risotto comes topped with three half-dollar-sized scallops. The seared outside gives the seafood an almost caramelized, gritty crunch (but in a good way). A soft, buttery middle makes the unimpressive risotto tolerable.

Moshovitis brings familiar favorites from the original location down to Capitol Hill, such as the lamb chops served over a bed of crispy fries. The seared chops are extremely tender, and the fries soak up the remaining fat and juices from the lamb, making ketchup an absolute sin to even think of. One new item appearing only at D.C. location is the Pastitsio, an individually sized ground veal, béchamel and noodle dish similar to lasagna. It has become so popular in the restaurant’s short time on Capitol Hill, a server says, that some may make their way back up I-270 to the original restaurant.

For dessert, the traditional baklava makes an expected appearance, as do small, fried doughnuts. Neither is a must-try. Order another mezze or try a mojito instead.

Serving up the Galaktoboureko, a traditional Greek dessert not as well-known as its baklava cousin, is the kitchen’s way of playing a joke. After getting plate after plate of small portions and delicate bites, the Galaktoboureko arrives looking like a phyllo dough burrito filled with a creamy custard. It offers the right amount of sweet for what can be a salty meal, but it is huge compared to the other portions and may provide more than that “just one bite of dessert” desired.

The menu contains numerous other options, making a repeat visit, or several, practically mandatory. Just be sure to wear clothes.