First Bite

Bethesda's Cava Mezze Grill guides takeout orders

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

A lot of hand-holding goes on at the new Cava Mezze Grill in Bethesda, where diners are encouraged to customize their meals from a Greek-inspired spread of starches, meats, vegetables and garnishes.

In this self-service offshoot of the locally owned Cava restaurants in Rockville and Capitol Hill, a sign near the entrance lets customers know how long they are likely to wait in line. (Expect about 10 to 12 minutes on a busy day.)

The menus, set out on a brushed-aluminum counter, prepare patrons for how to order - start with pita, rice or salad; consider a dip or two; add a featured topping - and also provide pronunciations. Harissa (hah-REE-sah), for those who might not know, is a zesty dip made from tomatoes, chili peppers, bell peppers and olive oil.

Assemblers behind the counter put your wishes together quickly and efficiently. My requests included juicy pork sausage, made biting with cayenne and tempered with orange zest, slipped into pillowy pita with a swab of cucumber-yogurt dip, and chopped leg of lamb on saffron-tinted rice. After having been grilled, braised and grilled again before serving, that lamb was a dry bust that needed every bit of the harissa and glossy, red-and-white cabbage salad heaped on top. Falafel is made with both mashed and whole chickpeas, plus plenty of garlic and parsley; the fritters taste best on a bed of greens.

Not sure what to get? Cava Mezze Grill, whose eco-friendly dining area incorporates reclaimed wood and ouzo bottles as light fixtures, lists six combinations it hopes you might like, running from chicken pita to a bowl of rice arranged with ground sirloin and cabbage salad.

Think Chipotle by way of Athens.

There is no limit to the number of accessories you can add to an order. Dimitri Moshovitis, one of three co-owners and the chef behind the recipes, says he designed the menu so that no matter the combination of ingredients, "no one could screw it up."

Moshovitis and his partners have a full plate. They plan to open a third Cava restaurant, in Clarendon, by the end of April, says the chef, and they're already scouting locations for a second fast-food grill in Dupont Circle, Penn Quarter or Tysons Corner.

4832 Bethesda Ave., Bethesda. 301-656-1772. Entrees, $6.40 to $7.50.

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