Mezze isn't a new concept in the Baltimore dining scene. We've got plenty of Mediterranean spots, from casual to high end, and more than a few restaurants that focus on small plates.
But as a restaurant concept, it's not overplayed, either.
So Cava Mezze, which opened in late June in Harbor East, is both a welcome addition to the city and already feels familiar. Its Greek-inspired small plates are mostly well-conceived and nicely prepared, and service is friendly and knowledgeable, though not perfectly paced.
The restaurant is Cava Mezze's fourth location but its first in Baltimore; the others are in and around Washington. The owners, three Greek-American friends from the D.C. area, have national plans for Cava Mezze and its fast-casual sister restaurant, Cava Grill.
The Baltimore restaurant's newly built space is loud, dimly lit and modern, with dark fixtures and metal and wood accents. On a recent Monday night, '90s rap gave the space an upbeat, chatty vibe that felt appropriate for the crowd — couples and small groups of friends, mostly in their 30s — though the space could skew sexier (or younger) with nothing more than a change in music.
Like most tables around us, we started with saganaki, a traditional Greek fried cheese dish. At Cava Mezze, the frying happens tableside; waiters ignite the cheese, flames shoot into the air, everyone oohs, aahs and laughs. Flaming dishes are dramatic and fun. This one was also tasty, with a crunchy crust and balanced flavors thanks to a squeeze of post-fire lemon.
Groups should consider the dip sampler, which includes small scoops of Cava Mezze's five dips, served with pita triangles. Tzatziki, hummus and roasted eggplant spreads, all well-seasoned, were familiar takes on the classic Greek dips. Taramosalata, a bright pink spread made with salmon roe, was subtly fishy and dressed up with truffle oil and a sprinkling of salty caviar.
Our favorite of the dips was the "crazy" feta. Whipped and infused with jalapeno, the feta was spicy, salty and very likable.
Meat-free dishes yielded mixed results. We loved the tart dressing and salty feta included in the village salad, a simple Greek salad of cucumber, red onion, olives and capers. But spherical fritters of falafel fell flat; they needed to be crispier outside, with more acid.
Meaty plates were also inconsistent. The lollipop chicken — a trio of fried drumsticks sprinkled with walnuts and served over tangy Greek yogurt — was sweet, tart, crunchy and fun. We loved it.
Braised pork cheeks were less of a hit. We were excited to see the tender cut on the menu, and the meat itself was lovely. But the tomato sauce and pasta served with the pork were too sweet and made the dish heavier than it needed to be.
Our two favorite dishes came from the sea. One long, soft octopus tentacle, grilled and served over thin slices of red onion, capers and finely chopped parsley, was fabulous.
A bowl of cuttlefish, cooked with ouzo and tossed with herbs, was sliced thin, almost like pasta. Though the soft-chewy texture of cuttlefish might not appeal to everyone, the dish was thoughtfully conceived and well executed.
Though Cava Mezze has a solid list of local beers and gamely offers a few Greek beverage selections (we liked the Gaia rose and the easy-drinking Mythos lager), the cocktail menu branches out a bit. Our favorite drink, the Dia de los Mango, was a spicy, citrusy tequila concoction that would be perfectly at home in any Mexican joint.
After dinner, on our waiter's recommendation, we tried two desserts: challah bread french toast served with berries, and loukoumades, fried doughnuts drizzled with honey and sprinkled with chopped walnuts. Both were fluffy and sweet but not too sugary. The loukoumades were better — crispier on the outside and more interesting all around.
Small plates present a challenge when ordering: Do you order everything at once and risk the dishes all coming together, or do you hold back, ordering one or two things at a time? Our waiter suggested we order all at once and let him take care of pacing.
Unfortunately, that was Cava Mezze's weak spot. Our early dishes came out too quickly, leaving us breathless and feeling rushed.
After tearing through the savory dishes, we asked for a few minutes to regroup. At that point, the pace ground way down. From then on, dinner was too slow.
Cava Mezze has a great space and a decent handle on its menu. Once the kitchen finds that happy medium between frenetic and glacial pacing, it will have all the bases covered.
Rating: 2 1/2 stars
Where: 1302 Fleet St., Baltimore
Contact: 443-499-9090; cavamezze.com
Open: Mondays-Thursdays, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.; Fridays, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 11 p.m.; Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sundays, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Prices: Dips, $6-$10.50; salads and vegetables, $7-$11; pasta, seafood and meat, $10-$15.
Food: Greek-inspired small plates.
Noise/TVs: Fairly loud music and conversations; two televisions behind the bar are on all the time.
Service: Enthusiastic and knowledgeable, but not always well-paced.
Parking: Garages and street parking.
Special diets: The kitchen will work to accommodate all dietary needs.
Reservation policy: Reservations are accepted.
[Key: Superlative: 5 stars; Excellent: 4 stars; Very Good: 3 stars; Good: 2 stars; Promising: 1 star]
Nearby reviews: Dish Baltimore - Harbor East