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In the world of fast-casual food concepts, it’s a little too easy to write off Cava Mezze Grill as a Greek version of Chipotle. In front of a sneeze guard-protected front counter, you’re ushered through a series of meat-and-topping construction stops, where you select fillers to go inside a pita instead of a tortilla (or in a carb-less, biodegradable bowl). You have pork, beef, and chicken options. You can easily go sans meat. There’s a refrigerated beverage case behind the cash register. You bus your own table or section of metal-clad countertop. There are directions for separating recyclables from trash and compost.
It’s a winning formula. The new eatery in Bethesda sits opposite an outpost of Sweetgreen, a local chain that follows a similar game plan, but with salad wraps. And Cava wouldn’t look out of place in Clarendon, or Gallery Place, or Dupont Circle. But that’s just daydreaming. For now, the D.C. area’s newest proto-chain is just a new eatery in a crowded marketplace that is increasingly demanding sustainable, healthy, reasonably priced, and convenient food options.
But Cava, if it plays its cards right, should be able to multiply, its brand solidified by its owners’ Cava Mezze restaurants on Capitol Hill and in Rockville, and by having Whole Foods carry its dips and spreads.
Is it all a gimmick? There’s a method, for sure. Walking in, I expected an underwhelming copycat. Instead I discovered both a pleasing variation on the Chipotle idiom and a clean, inventive update of the tired stuffing-and-pita joint. If you’ve ever drowned your meal in toppings at Amsterdam Falafelshop, then the far-more-restrained Cava might seem downright revolutionary.
Cava isn’t exactly selling itself as the thinking man’s Mediterranean wrap place. The eatery’s promotional materials profess a philosophy of “big flavor with a small footprint.” But after a few visits, it’s clear that those big flavors happen to be pretty complex, and are worth studying closely.
If you’re comparing Cava to Chipotle, then the newcomer’s pork option, loukaniko, shows up the national burrito chain’s carnitas. Instead of shredded, seasoned pork, one of Cava’s founders, Dimitri Moshovitis, adapted a family pork sausage recipe, using leeks, fennel seeds, salt, pepper, cayenne pepper, and orange zest, a defining ingredient of traditional loukaniko.
This sausage doesn’t come in tubular form. It’s divided into irregular bite-size chunks, and I combined it with cabbage salad, tomato and onion salad, red pepper and eggplant, and “crazy feta,” a thicker, spreadable version of the crumbled white Greek cheese, with some jalapeño for added kick. (You can opt for normal feta if you like.)
That combo, by the way, clocks in at under 800 calories when served in a pita, according to Cava’s handy online nutrition calculator. It’s filling, but it doesn’t tread into food-coma territory.
I was less pleased with the lamb, which was dry, though still flavorful. When combined with crazy feta and rice, the result was a not-so-pleasing gummy mouthful.
Cava CEO Brett Schulman says the lamb can be tricky to nail. “We actually had an issue this week where our kitchen crew trimmed too much fat off the lamb after braising before finishing on the grill,” he says. “There is a fine line with the lamb on the grill getting too dry if they trim too much fat.”
The ground sirloin, however, had the right amount of juice. Any more, and it could have turned the pita into a soggy mess, depending on the wetness of the other toppings and the rice’s success sponging everything up.
That’s a common problem with some pita-and-filler places like Amsterdam Falafelshop and Maoz. An overzealous customer can overwhelm pita creations with a gluttonous adventure through the toppings bar. You have the power to create a masterpiece or a mess.
Because Cava limits the number of toppings and simplifies the assembly line, it’s hard to go totally out of control: You’re just directing the process, not physically building your meal. That has allowed Cava to perfect the options it offers, stressing fresh ingredients that have been carefully adapted for a fast-casual setting. The process of translating recipes to the service environment, Schulman says, has created some pleasant surprises, including the falafel. Cutting one open reveals a chunky, multiple-texture interior. The moist innards are hand-mashed, which creates pockets of creamy, crushed chick peas, onions, parsley, and cilantro. A bit of flour helps bind it all together. It’s a refreshing change from the dry and crunchy falafel you’re used to. It’s not deep fried, but flash fried for 30 to 45 seconds.
Another pleasant surprise is the lentil soup, which consists of lentils, bay leaves, onion, garlic, salt, pepper, and some red wine vinegar for a touch of acidity. It has a satisfying, even texture, with a nice bite. It’s served a bit too hot, though, but that can be hard to avoid with packaging designed to transport hot liquids. Still, if Chipotle served soup as a side item, it’s hard to imagine it tasting this good.
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The first thing you’ll notice about Litestars, another new, local fast-casual eatery, is its clinical, cafeteria-like feel. There’s a barrier-separated queue designed to shuttle customers through several food stations, complete with electronic display screens with menu information. You grab a tray and push it past a case containing mini-quiche-like tartlets and a cluster of transparent dispensers of Litestars’ trademarked Soupdrinks, each one a different shade of yellow or orange. The menu itself may be the most unique visual, offering a degree of nutritional detail about chef Annie Leconte’s recipes—and the various Food and Drug Administration guidelines each of them adhere to—that sets Litestars apart from even the most regulated of chain eateries.
When Litestars opened on L Street NW on the edge of the Golden Triangle Business Improvement District last fall, its promotional materials proclaimed it to be “the bistro of the future,” providing nutritious food options for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Instead of a wrap-centric approach, Leconte, a native of France, offers tartlets, Soupdrinks, and salads. But tartlets and Soupdrinks aren’t exactly standard fast-casual fare. That’s sort of the point.
“I’ve been passionate about nutritious food,” Leconte says. Every option has been meticulously tested and is low in fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates, and sugar. The Soupdrinks never come to a boil, a technique that preserves minerals like potassium, iron, and magnesium. The tartlets, each with a different combination of fresh ingredients, use white whole wheat flour, which is high in fiber. The shortening utilizes palm oil, which is lactose-free and devoid of bad stuff like trans fats and sodium.
Naturally, everything is fresh. “With many fast-casual places, they don’t prepare their food on the spot,” Leconte says. “That we do. We don’t even have a freezer.”
But what about taste? The Soupdrinks are low-sodium—though Leconte reassures me they do have some salt—and are mostly blends of vegetables like tomato, carrots, sweet potatoes, and eggplants. Most of the concoctions I tried in recent weeks needed some extra kick. For that, Litestars has stationed its special seasoning blend—an herby, salty mix—around the dining area as a tableside salt-and-pepper substitute.
A Soupdrink can be an unusual concept for the uninitiated. I generally think of soup as a meal. I like different textures and elements, which you won’t get with one of Leconte’s puree-like creations, which the eatery describes as a “beverage” on its website. It’s served in a soda-style cup, from which you can drink on the run if you’re pressed for time. That’s not quite my favorite way to enjoy soup, but I did feel energized for the next few hours, and my appetite was sated.
There are plenty of gluten-free options spelled out clearly on the menu. The Soupdrinks are all gluten-free, and many are vegan. You can plan out a nutritional strategy pretty easily. You can count calories, if you please.
A 12 oz. container of the Twister Soupdrink, described as “a voulté made of eggplant,” clocks in at 265 calories. On the current menu, the highest calorie Soupdrink is the Fizzly, a “unique taste of red beets,” which has 565 calories if you get a 20-ounce serving. My favorite was the Sea Breeze, a zippy blend of zucchini and onions that didn’t need additional seasoning, like some of the other Soupdrinks. There’s just 305 calories in a 16-ounce serving.
While a good chunk of the menu is vegetarian and vegan, there are some meat options—albeit meat that fits into Leconte’s nutritional regimen and controlled portion size. Locally sourced bison is ground and paired with onion and tomato for a pleasing tartlet. A turkey tartlet is inspired by a frittata, with egg whites and crispy apples.
The tartlets are all crispy, savory, and delicate. Pick one apart with a biodegradable fork and you’ll detect more elaborate flavors. But they’re subtle, not broad-shouldered. Leconte doesn’t want to weigh down your stomach, but treat your better nutritional angels.
And that approach might turn off some diners. A mushroom omelet is described on the breakfast menu as a “Denver omelete without bacon and cholesterol.” It’s a subtle tsk-tsk. But it’s also a reminder of how used we are to fat and sodium.
Like Cava Grill, Litestars is trying new concepts that toy with our perceived notions of what fast-casual eating is and isn’t. With either place, you’re forced to think a little more about what you’re eating. Let’s see if these new ventures take root and multiply. CP
Cava Grill, 4832 Bethesda Ave, 301-656-1772
Litestars, 2101 L St. NW, 202-293-0281
Photo of Cava Mezze Grill by Darrow Montgomery; photo of Litestars by Michael E. Grass