Cleared for takeoff

Clever Cavu takes flight in Midtown

It's another sign of the times that all the old rambling Midtown houses where I bought recreational chemicals in the halcyon days of my hippie youth are being converted into restaurants. Where I once sniffed sinsemilla and licked microdots, I now nibble lamb's lettuce. The horror! The horror!

Some of these restaurants — retro-decorated Cherry, for example — are a bit of an excellent acid trip themselves. Others, like Spice, look like misplaced chunks of Los Angeles. Now comes something in between the two. Cavu (794 Juniper St., 404-875-2229), calling itself very L.A.-like "a restaurant-lounge concept," is pleasantly trippy without retro excess.

Indeed, designer Michael Habachy describes the ambience as "mid-'70s meets the year 2001." That is to say he's nodded to nostalgia by preserving the late 19th-century architecture while installing accents here and there — white light fixtures that resemble clustered ping-pong balls or brain models, for example — that do indeed bring back those wacky '70s.

But the overall look is quite contemporary. A study in beige with dark wood floors and curtains that shimmer like fiberglass, the upstairs dining room is divided by the old house's original walls, but they appear to have been judiciously opened so you don't have that usual cottage re-do sensation of dining in your bedroom. Artist Laura Bowman's work, pleasantly sensual, decorates the walls. I give Michael Habachy Designer of the Week Award for not painting a single wall gold or artificially stressing any surface.

Owners Brian Bratton and Stephen Cook, who also own the Crescent Room, say the restaurant's name is an acronym for an aviator's phrase: "Clear Above, Visibility Unlimited." Whatever. Their cuisine, executed by Chef Delroy Bowen, may well get you high. The former chef de cuisine at Tribeca Grill and executive chef at Michael's (both in New York), Bowen has created one of the most exciting menus I've seen debut in our city in a long time.

I visited only four days after the restaurant's opening. Although there were occasional glitches in service — our waiter disappeared for such a long time I had to hunt someone to take our order — the kitchen seems to be running smoothly. Chef Bowen, who is a native of Jamaica, was visiting tables, explaining his concept, asking for feedback.

He calls the menu New American, but it goes beyond the usual experience implied by that moniker. For example, Wayne ordered the caviar service, the cost of which varies from $18-$51, depending on the grade of roe you order. Here, the caviar is served over a lemon-parsley flan. On the side is a tangle of deliciously pickled onion and some lamb's lettuce. Wayne ruins everything with too much lemon in my estimation, so he was crazy about the dish. I found the lemon flan a bit too intense for the dollop of caviar garnishing it, but using your spoon to measure the correct ratios remedies that.

My starter was a grilled and almost stingingly salty quail ($14) served with a sliced plum poached in port wine. It was topped with an annoyingly small slice of sauteed foie gras (not that I've ever had foie gras in a large enough portion). The dish was lightly sauced with a port wine reduction.

You'll also find intriguing lobster and guava salad with mint over polenta cakes enriched with mascarpone ($12) and flash-cooked ahi tuna with tamarind sauce, mustard oil and cilantro puree, served with Indian pappadam ($11). Salads include purslane with toasted pumpkin seeds, queso blanco and chorizo sausage vinaigrette ($11) or field greens with pickled onions and Yukon gold potatoes ($7).

Wayne, to my consternation, picked the restaurant's one vegetarian entree: a maple-roasted acorn squash stuffed with corn-tapioca and toasted pumpkin seeds ($16). I found it unappealing, even with its strong Mexican chocolate sauce (well beyond a mole). But he thought it was fabulous. Tapioca has become inexplicably popular. Its judicious use is fine, but those forced as children to gobble up "frog-eye pudding" believe a little goes as long way.

My own entree was utterly delicious. Chef Bowen marinates sweetbreads in almond milk and then sears them until they're crisp. They are served with the radical contrast of a shallot marmalade over a mound of thinly sliced potatoes and salsify (also known as oyster plant) au gratin. A Madeira wine sauce adds yet another contrast to the plate. It's a huge serving, and I ate every damn bite.

Other entrees include: chili-rubbed rabbit (with more corn tapioca); grilled duck breast with grapes and cassis sauce; osso bucco made with buffalo and served with lingonberry syrup and roasted cippoline onions; a grilled strip steak with foie gras butter; Chilean sea bass in a hibiscus-ginger sauce, served with chickpea pancakes stuffed with mustard greens; spice-crusted lobster medallions over plum risotto; and grilled ahi tuna with pomegranate syrup.

The bar of the new restaurant occupies the ground floor (with a small dining room downstairs, too). There is a brief tapas menu including finger sandwiches (such as house-made duck sausage with pomegranate syrup and foie gras butter), chilled oysters on the half shell and fried boniata (potatoes) with seasoned aiolis.

Finally, there's a dessert menu that includes an extravagant chocolate tasting. But we were far too full from the rest of the meal to consider it.

Let me hear your own comments. The precarious situation of a menu like Cavu's is that some Atlantans will find it too adventurous or intimidating, while others will accuse it of sacrificing taste to invention. I found neither to be true. And, by the way, I salute Chef Bowen for not indulging in the absurdist sculptural presentations of so much food traveling under the label of New American.

A fine start!

Leave Cliff Bostock a voice mail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1504.??

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