Sparkling sam­pler

Pasatiempo - - RESTAURANT REVIEW - Alex Heard For The New Mex­i­can

You may feel puz­zled at first when you en­ter the El­do­rado Ho­tel in search of the Cava Santa Fe Lounge, a drink­ing and din­ing spot that the ho­tel’s web­site bills as “Santa Fe’s com­mu­nity liv­ing room and meet­ing space.” On first glance, it’s not quite clear where it is.

When I tell peo­ple about Cava, they of­ten con­fuse it with the Agave Lounge, which sits in­side a well-marked set of rooms to the left of the ho­tel’s main en­trance. Cava in­hab­its the vast lobby be­yond that, a car­peted, columned, high­ceilinged space that, on its outer mar­gins, has the scat­tered feel of a con­ven­tion-cen­ter show­room — be­tween shows. The fur­ni­ture is an eclec­tic mix: ex­treme high-back chairs, lowslung mod­ern lounge seats, big couches, small couches, and ta­bles low and high. Af­ter you se­lect your roost, black-clad servers will glide over from the area by the bar, which runs along the room’s north­east wall. Both times I vis­ited, they showed up quickly, and soon enough they were de­liv­er­ing some very tasty things.

The drinks and small plates served in ho­tel lob­bies can be an af­ter­thought, but at Cava al­most ev­ery­thing we sam­pled was quite good. The menu is brief, a tall, two-sided, heavy-stock sheet with mixed drinks and wines on one side, Span­ish-style small plates and plat­ters on the other. (Bot­tled beer is avail­able, too; ask your server about avail­able brands.) There are only a dozen food of­fer­ings listed, and that in­cludes two desserts, so you can run the ta­ble on sa­vory items in just two or three trips. Don’t be sur­prised if you go back more of­ten than that, though, be­cause this is a fun, quiet place to meet friends and have a drink and a snack.

We tried three cock­tails over the course of our first meal, and each was ex­cel­lent. I started with the Viejo Bas­tardo (“the old bas­tard”), a vari­a­tion on that bar­room clas­sic, the old fash­ioned. Cava’s ver­sion uses good bour­bon and isn’t loaded down with sweet­ener or fruit, ei­ther of which can ruin this drink. We were also im­pressed with El Con­quis­ta­dor — an aged-te­quila mar­garita with the sub­tle taste of rose­mary com­ing through — and the pisco sour — a blend of pisco (a South Amer­i­can brandy), a lemony mixer, beaten egg whites, and bit­ters. The bar­tender ap­plied the bit­ters in an el­e­gant de­sign on the sur­face of the egg-white foam.

When you or­der food, you have the op­tion, in most cases, of se­lect­ing a “plate” (with prices rang­ing from $5 to $12) or a “plat­ter” ($13 to $30). (There are also a few small sand­wiches, a cod-frit­ter slider or a choice be­tween an open-face pork shoul­der sand­wich or a mush­room and spinach combo, both called pin­chos.) The plate por­tions were gen­er­ous. We or­dered the em­panadas — small flaky-pas­try pack­ets con­tain­ing sherried mush­rooms and ac­com­pa­nied by truf­fle arugula and salsa verde. The plate con­tained four of them, which for $7 seemed like a great deal. I tried the Basque-style mus­sels, de­li­cious spec­i­mens swimming in a broth of tomato, sherry, and saf­fron. The $9 plate was ac­tu­ally a bowl, and it con­tained two dozen mus­sels and sev­eral pieces of toasted French bread.

Ev­ery­thing else was also good: a “Span­ish Sam­pling” plate that fea­tured toasts, cheese slices, olives, tiny link sausages, a thin slice of cured meat, and a blob of date purée; yucca fries with a de­li­cious chipo­tle herb dip; and the cod slider — a mini fried-fish sand­wich on brioche, with let­tuce and a le­mon-caper mayo that was sort of like a nice tar­tar sauce. We topped that off with a novel dessert: vanilla ice cream, mango sauce, and two rolled crepes with banana purée fill­ing. This is called, con­fus­ingly, a caramel banana crisp mar­tini. But what­ever they la­bel it, it was good.

The only short­com­ing we en­coun­tered was a drink that didn’t quite fly: the Blood & Sand, a cock­tail with scotch, ver­mouth, blood-or­ange juice, and cherry liqueur. It was an in­ter­est­ing list, but this con­coc­tion came out tast­ing like spiked ap­ple cider.

No gripes about any­thing else, though. The bar makes a great Man­hat­tan, and all the plates we or­dered were good. Along with the mus­sels, we tried the al­bondi­gas — spicy meat­balls with some blue cheese mixed in — and one of the best desserts I’ve had in a while: chur­ros with cho­co­late dip. Over­all, Cava was a very pleas­ant sur­prise. It’s not ex­actly cheap, but when you fac­tor in the por­tions and happy hour dis­counts — with re­duced prices on well and sig­na­ture drinks, and 20 per­cent off on food — it’s a pleas­ant and af­ford­able sur­prise.

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