Cava Mezze Grill, Bethesda, MD

I’d heard the new Cava Mezze Grill described as a hypothetical synthesis of Cava and Chipotle, and honestly, I cannot think of a better description. If you walk in, you’ll see exactly what I’m talking about.

And it’s a concept that’s going to work, too – it’s already been proven with burritos, but now we have the healthful (if not entirely true) perception of Greek and Middle Eastern cuisine combined with blazing efficiency and the business-savvy juggernaut of Cava – it’s one heck of a formidable trio.

On your first visit, you may be a bit confused – the menu’s sections are labeled, in large print: START, WITH, CHOOSE, EXTRAS, DRINKS. But it’s really quite simple – a plug-and-play formula where you pick your starter, add dips and spreads, choose your meat, and then buy whatever extras and drinks you want. Everything is sitting right in front of you in chafing dishes, so what you see is what you get.

Pita with Lamb ($7.50) comes with good, homemade pita the size of a very large, thick pancake, wrapped around pot-braised (*) lamb. I ordered mine with Crazy Feta, tzatziki, red cabbage, and a cucumber-tomato dice.

Bowl with Loukaniko ($6.90, and don’t laugh – it actually says “Bowl”) comes filled with basmati rice with loukaniko (a handcrafted, natural pork sausage with herbs and olive oil, grilled), and I added tzatziki and hummus, and some more of that red cabbage and cucumber-tomato dice. (Note to management – the scoops of hummus and tzatziki buried under the rice are hard to visually distinguish from the rice itself.)

Both of these were wonderful – this place reminds me, quality-wise, of Surfside, except right now it might even be better because the opening crew is putting on the full-court press. It’s fast, it’s cheap, it’s delicious, and … you may as well enjoy it now because I’m going to make the bold prediction that in five years there are going to be numerous Cava Mezze Grills, and this concept is so solid that it could easily, easily become a major national chain one day – catch it now while it’s in its state of dormancy, then look back and remember when.

(*) I love the giant braising pot sitting on the stove. Please don’t ever lose sight that braised meats are absolutely appropriate for this type of cuisine – that lamb was so obviously long-cooked. Yes, it had been sitting out for awhile (it was 9 PM), but it was just so right. Not to mention the visual appeal of that giant pot on the stove. Whatever you do, when you open your 500th store, keep it real.

When I think of the potential that Elevation Burger had culinarily before they militantly decided to cook everything to well-done, and even now that Taylor Gourmet has changed their rolls, it makes me a bit sad. It’s easy to see how expansion can erode quality – even though both of those chains appear to be making money hand-over-fist, the naive optimist in me still thinks a large chain – with controlled growth – can have both high quality and high profits.

Do I sound like I think this place is going to be a success?

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