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Helen Michel carves the jamon iberico at Cava Restaurant in Toronto.

JENNIFER ROBERTS/The Globe and Mail

2.5 out of 4 stars

Name
Cava
Location
1560 Yonge St., Toronto, Ontario
Phone
416-979-9918
Website
cavarestaurant.ca
Cuisine
Spanish
Appetizer Price Min
3.50
Appetizer Price Max
30.00
Vegetarian Friendly?
Yes
Drinks
One of the city’s most interesting and reasonable wine and sherry lists; all bottles are half price on Mondays.
Atmosphere
A fun, convivial and comfortable 60-seat tapas bar and restaurant, hidden away in a midtown strip mall. Excellent service.
Recommendations
Have the supergilda and foie gras pinchos, ceviche, artichokes, black cod, sweetbreads and – a must – the deep fried eggplant. The menu changes constantly.

There was a late dinner rush at Cava the other night, on a Tuesday evening in the doldrums of summer when the subways felt empty and Yonge Street was quiet, when midtown had otherwise completed its annual northward migration to lakes Joe and Rosseau and to Georgian Bay. Cava opened in 2006; that makes it 80, at least, in restaurant years. The novelty of the place should long since have passed.

Except here was this rush, these people, the party of eight in the window, the well-heeled quartets and trios, the salt-and-pepper men, the primates of Bennington Heights, the gorgeous young couple whose arrival at 9 p.m. prompted an entire restaurant to twist around and pretend not to stare.

If novelty hadn't drawn all those diners, it was other, far rarer attributes: comfort, humility, consistency and understated decadence. Through nine years – and, as of last winter, new ownership – Cava has matured from a buzzy destination Spanish spot into a dependable neighbourhood classic.

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Doug Penfold, Cava's long-time co-chef and partner, along with former general manager Niall McCotter, bought out chef Chris McDonald's interest in the restaurant last December. Mr. Penfold had been doing most of the cooking in recent years; the transition was fairly seamless. (Mr. McDonald is now the consulting chef at Barsa Taberna, on Market Street.) Mr. Penfold has tinkered with the menu – there's more fish, and more vegetable dishes – but he had the good sense and the humility not to change things for change's sake. And his kitchen at Cava still knows how to thrill.

The "supergilda" pincho here is magnificent, a stacked composition of tomato-smeared toast and of olives wrapped in anchovies, with a whole fat sardine fillet that's rich and clean and luxuriously fatty, that's been seared to honeyed sweetness and then pickled overnight.

Cava's famed fried eggplant, too, delivers as much of a flavour jolt as it ever has. The flesh is deep fried to crisp-sweet and oozy, set in a dish of super-tart tomatillo salsa. It arrives under shavings of dried tuna belly that dance and wave in the rising steam and taste like maritime jerky. The dish isn't Spanish, exactly: It is also Japanese izakaya food, with assists from South America. Cava is Spanish at heart, but it has always played hard against type.

We had fried, creamy-centred artichokes one night that took me to Rome, except in Rome I didn't eat fried artichokes anywhere near as good as this. Cava's ceviche (hello, Peru!) is a masterwork of judgment. The balance, the seasoning, the textures are all exactly right.

And as always, there are simple pleasures to please any crowd: There's Iberico ham at the bar, and avocado toasts with herring roe, and the signature, twice-cooked papas fritas that come in a paper cone, with a dish of properly smoky paprika aioli.

The soup special recently was a bowl of genius: It was a bisque, made from lobster and white fish, taut with sweet-acid tension and the tastes of anise and herbs and deep-sea minerality. It was French, not Spanish, but you'd be a fool to complain.

They do black cod here the way black cod comes everywhere: in a melting, swoon-eliciting pile, cooked in miso and apple cider vinegar. It is perfect, the tastiest cliché in all of cooking, offset with a mound of inky black rice. The menu is long and broad and in constant flux, though rooted, always, in Cava's classic dishes. There's also roasted cauliflower – because every restaurant in 2015 has to have roasted cauliflower – that's stirred through with herbs and lemon and served with batons of the chickpea-flour cake called panisse.

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Cava, though an excellent restaurant, has never reached perfection; this too has not changed. The venison anticuchos – skewers – one night weren't seasoned enough to stand up to the excellent red cabbage they came with; the panisse on that cauliflower plate would have been far better if it came toasty and fragrant, instead of as though it had been sitting since 3 p.m.

A special of pattypan squash and zucchini with chanterelle mushrooms was bland and boring – it didn't taste so much like a celebration of high-summer vegetables so much as faint praise, mumbled quietly. And the paella we had another night would have been fine for $25 or $30, but for $65 it wasn't even on nodding terms with good enough. It was decent rice and not enough seafood cooked in stock for a crucial few minutes too long.

Some of this, I suspect, is owing to the restaurant's summertime street food satellite called Cava Sur, a first this year, at the Front Street Foods pop-up at Union Station. Mr. McCotter, on the phone this week, said the project, though worthwhile, has stretched the restaurant's staff. (Mr. Penfold spends the bulk of his time overseeing it.) It can't be easy to run a full-service restaurant in midtown, as well as a limited-time-only one downtown.

Nonetheless, I love the place. There are enough terrific dishes at Cava to warrant repeated visits – even in a city that's got no shortage of Spanish kitchens. The wine list is deep and superb and affordable. (The "affordable" part is doubly true on Monday evenings, when every bottle is 50 per cent off.) The room is comfortable: fun and convivial without being shouty. And the service, always a Cava strong suit, is friendly and deeply professional. They are experts at reading customers here.

"You know what heaven is?" our server asked us the last time I ate there, as we tore into a plate of pinchos, and slugged from glasses of crisp Xarel-lo wine. "It's ten supergildas and half a bottle of Manzanilla sherry."

I considered it for a second and then agreed with him, and then I couldn't stop thinking about it, because that would be heaven. Even before we'd left, I was trying to figure out when I could come back again.

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