I like rituals. I like shopping, especially when there's an excuse for it. It seems that for every few perfect presents I find for others, I also run across an item that has my name written all over it. ('Tis better to give and receive.) I gain similar benefits from holiday restaurant meals. When I wrote about the best dishes I'd consumed in 2006, I didn't mention the succulent peat-smoked pork shank served with champ (mashed potatoes mixed with chard and onions) at O'Reilly's Holy Grail, a singularly festive setting with its massive stained-glass windows and cheerily tinkling live piano playing, and the iconic Venetian meal at cozy Da Flora, sweet potato gnocchi sauced with cream and bacon, followed by sautéed chicken livers washed down with a good Italian red inside its wine-tinted walls.
Another exquisite holiday meal at a place I'd eaten at before reminded me that in 2006 I'd only devoted 150 words to Cav Wine Bar, mentioned as one of San Francisco's best wine bars in our annual Best of S.F. issue. My dinner there with Ruth and Sharon (in town from Los Angeles for a little shopping, a little museum-going, a little walking around town) was so delightful that I understood why the full name of the place is Cav Wine Bar & Kitchen.
It's not a white-tablecloth place: The tables are metal, reminiscent of the classic zinc bartops of Paris, and as you enter from Market Street, you can see only a couple of them. The first zig-zag of the vaguely lightning-shaped space contains a long bar and a couple of tables set against the rear wall; as you walk past the bar, a long, thin dining room is revealed, with a black-upholstered banquette against one wall, studded with tables.
It was a rainy night, and I was uncharacteristically late. But when I entered the place in a tizzy, Ruth and Sharon were blissfully calm, ensconced at the bar sipping a seductive glass of vintage port (a 1980 Grahams) and a wonderful spicy Côte de Brouilly (a 2005 Domaine de la Voute des Crozes), chosen with the able help of the barman, who had skillfully elicited their preferences. I gasped only a tiny bit when it was revealed at the end of the meal that the port was $18 a glass. Sharon had liked it so much that she had another glass for dessert. I tried the least expensive port on the list, myself a 1986 Smith Woodhouse Colheita Tawny and was completely happy: It went wonderfully well with our cheeses and sweets. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
In no time we were whisked away to a comfy table in the back, ready to study the menu. It looks something like a term paper: stiff red three-hole-punched paper covers, bound with metal binder rings. The first section devotes 2 1/2 pages to food. There's a page of savory dishes, divided this night into a box up top entitled Tartare Trio, beef, mushroom, and hamachi, available singly or as a sampling of all three, followed by a listing entitled Bites, six wildly different dishes including marinated olives; Brussels sprouts with bacon, whole grain mustard, and cider; and a baby beet salad with grapefruit, jicama, and avocado puree. At first I assumed this was the vegetarian section, until I spied pancetta in one dish of the six, and saw parsnip agnolotti with chestnut brown butter, truffle honey, and beet greens in the next grouping, called Plates, six "main courses" including a fondue served with walnut bread, house-smoked sausage, and assorted crudités and a grilled venison chop. Then there's a box offering house-made charcuterie, again three different kinds, available singly or as a sampler of all three; an antipasto platter of meats, cheeses, and vegetables; and a house-cured salumi platter.
On the other side of the page, 14 cheeses: Choose three, five, or a cheese platter. And opposite that, under "Sweets," four desserts.
Beverages get two sections: six pages for wines by the glass (and beer, cider, soda, French press coffee, and tea by the pot), and 25 for wine by the bottle an eclectic and far-ranging accumulation that includes Greece, South Africa, New Zealand, Turkey, and Chile, as well as the more expected France, Italy, Germany, and the U.S. The wines by the glass (43 the night we dined) are given poetic and evocative descriptions; not so the bottles, though the servers are happy to discuss possibilities with you. That night we felt like running barefoot through the glasses list (available by the 2 1/2-ounce taste or a 5-ounce glass), trying an Alsatian Gewurztraminer (1999 Rieflé Côte de Rouffach), a Spanish sparkling wine (2002 Juvé y Camps Cava Brut Naturel), and an Italian red from Puglia (2000 Cantina Sociale di Copertina Società Cooperativa Agricola Copertino Riserva).
Just as I wish I could have tasted more of the wines, the food we had was so well thought out, so carefully cooked, so satisfying, that I wish we could have ordered more. We started with the assorted house-made charcuterie: a silky chicken liver mousse with tart red wine gelée, an interesting rillettes made with rabbit, grilled apple, and a drizzle of saba (a wine byproduct: reduced grape must), and a coarser country-style boar pâté with a little heap of grainy mustard and some sharp house-made pickles. We also had wonderful crunchy hot ricotta fritters, garnished with the triple bite of pickled golden raisins, shallots, and arugula.
Then Ruth ordered the pork tagine, stewed with olives, orange sections, plump yellow raisins, and strewn with toasted almonds for a bit of crunch above the succulent oily tenderness. Sharon feasted on pimenton-spiced (smoked chili powder) shrimp tinged golden with saffron, with a paella croquette. I hesitated over the classic steak tartare (with capers, mustard, chopped parsley, and quail egg), but was thrilled with my choice of lightly poached egg on creamy semolina polenta, a "bite" rather than a "plate," beatified with some crisp house-cured pancetta and Meyer lemon hollandaise. (The flowery Meyer lemon made a big contribution.)
We had already had a fabulous meal. But we couldn't resist cheese and dessert. The three cheeses we chose, the triple-cream cow's milk Brillat-Savarin from Normandy; the irresistibly named Sweet Grass Thomasville Tomme, a raw cow's milk cheese from Georgia; and an unusual raw sheep's milk, Serra da Estrela, from Portugal, were beautifully plated with nuts, fresh and dried fruit, and honey. The mascarpone panna cotta with poached persimmon was lovely. But we were all crazy about the coconut pot de crème, which really tasted like coconut. Each dish we'd been presented had been like a present, and I knew that my first New Year's resolution was to eat here again soon.