2123 Adams Avenue, University Heights
They had me at empanadas. When I learned that Cueva Bistro was serving these sturdy Argentine/Chilean snacks — packets of thin-rolled, oven-crisped dough containing beef, chicken, and all manner of other goodies — it went to the top of my “must eat here” list. Empanadas saw me through my low-budget travels through Chile and Patagonia many years ago, and are an enduring favorite among the gauchos of the pampas, the miners of the Atacama Desert, and the urbanites of Buenos Aires and Santiago.
Cueva isn’t exactly a tapas bar, nor a wine bar, but a room to enjoy varied tastes (preferably shared) while sipping a terrific selection of wines and serious beers. The room is small and pleasant, with a vaguely Latin decor (e.g., an acoustic guitar hanging in the bar among the bottles). Seating is on banquettes, with cushions that cling to knit pants, or padded wooden chairs, which are also clingy, but better than no pads. Lighting is bright enough to read the menu and wine list. Joy to the world — a wine bar that’s comfortable, even for those of us who didn’t get our drinking licenses last week!
The noise wasn’t bad, even at the height of hilarity from neighboring tables, in good part because the ambient music plays softly — at least it did on a Thursday — and the decor absorbs rather than amplifies the sound. Like the menu, it is hip and eclectic; I even caught a bit of ska, the mellower precursor of reggae. (Music on the website is more aggressive; sobbing gypsy violins segue into growling funk, so maybe it’s different on weekends.) And the neighborhood is beautiful. The bistro is next door to Farmhouse and across the street from a park.
For the evening’s adventure, I invited “JJ,” the financial counselor from my bank, to go out and eat, to relax after a terrifying afternoon of signing forms that will shift my paltry assets into riskier but better-paying investments. Thing is, when JJ first heard I was a restaurant critic, he bubbled over with a boyish enthusiasm I’d never have expected from a “suit.” I invited the Lynnester to join us, to give JJ a better view of how my ilk does its work and to add another mouth to feed. By the time we reached Cueva, JJ’s tie was off, his white shirtsleeves rolled up. Whatever his financial advice, asking him to dinner was a solid investment, as he proved to have a well-tuned palate and culinary intelligence.
We started with chips, guacamole, and Mexican-born chef/co-owner Oz’s house-made salsa (which he bottles and sells by the pint). The chips arrive warm from the oven. A smallish saucer of guacamole reveals a mild blend heavily laden with snipped cilantro. The dark-red savory salsa tastes of smoked tomatoes with a bit of pica from hot peppers. We liked it.
Oz’s specialty appetizer offers fresh-baked pita — his partner Jo makes all the baked goods — with raw veggies, hummus, and more guacamole. Not sure how I feel about this fearsomely healthy array, but I do wish I’d ordered the whole-wheat pita for $1 extra, for greater depth of flavor. JJ loved the smooth, easygoing hummus; I found it a little bland.
When he’s not cooking, Oz comes out of the kitchen to hang with diners and answer questions. He recommended his new cocoa flatbread with golden raisins, walnuts, dried cranberries, and asiago cheese, and it proved a trip — one worth taking. The thin dough and exuberant toppings are far from ordinary. “Everybody’s doing flatbreads now,” I said, “and they’re mostly boring. Here’s a chef who’s creative, who’s courageous.”
The chef also recommended a salad of hearts of romaine with avocado, parmesan, and tortilla chips with a cilantro vinaigrette, a sort of re-Mexicanized Caesar salad. I’ll take avocado any which way it comes, but our salad had the wrong dressing. Instead of cilantro vinaigrette, it came with the too-sweet apricot vinaigrette that’s supposed to go with the mixed greens and blue-cheese salad (where I don’t think I’d like it either). “I don’t like sweet dressings with green salads,” said JJ later. “Give me classic vinaigrette or Italian — the real stuff, not the bottled ‘lite’ version where there’s no olive oil flavor.”
There are four soup-stews on the menu, officially sized for one person. They’d be filling main dishes, but in a shared dinner, there is plenty for three or four to enjoy. We checked out the chicken gumbo, which should have quotes around its name. It’s nothing like a Louisiana gumbo: no mahogany roux (flour and oil patiently cooked together until red-brown) to thicken the broth and give it a smoky flavor, nor Cajun gumbo filé (powdered thyme and sassafras), nor any perceptible long-cooked okra to give the soup “draw,” its slightly glutinous quality. The veggie component does include celery, onion, and small squares of well-cooked green bell pepper, Louisiana’s holy trinity. The chef learned to cook the dish from his nanny (who was from Veracruz, where it isn’t called gumbo) and later amended it with Louisiana flavors picked up on his travels. So it’s really a Mexican gumbo, a delicious and substantial chicken-and-rice soup with a shot of hot spice. Other substantial soups include a bowl of chili, a potato soup, and especially dear to Oz’s heart (and some Yelpers’ palates), albondigas (meatball) soup.
The primary choice of main dishes consists of baked empanadas...not just the little snacky bites but big ones sized for a hungry gaucho’s lunch, served two to an order. (They aren’t quite as irresistible as those at Puerto La Boca in Little Italy, the best place locally to taste these treats, especially during happy hour. Berta’s in Old Town also shines with the Chilean versions, especially ethereal deep-fried cheese empanadas made with a buttery, croissant-like dough.) Oz doesn’t attempt fried empanadas: all his food is health-conscious, he says. No deep frying and only a thin layer of olive oil for sautées or to keep foods from sticking.