All of the servers at Cava Mezze (1302 Fleet St.,  499-9090, cavamezze.com) wore black T-shirts that bear the slogan "A culture, not a concept." Questionable logic aside (aren't all cultures technically concepts?), it's a reference to the fact that the three founders of this restaurant chain—with other locations in Rockville, Arlington, Washington, D.C., and, soon, Olney—are the sons of Greek immigrants, so their Greek small-plates cuisine is their heritage, not a food fad.
While the slogan broadcasts the founders' history, the restaurant itself feels thoroughly 21st century. Cava, a server explained, means "cave," to which the decor gives a weak nod with high ceilings and plenty of clean gray. But if the slogan is trying to differentiate Cava Mezze's Greek-inspired cuisine from so many other contemporary restaurants that draw inspiration from international cuisine, its physical space makes it feels like any other D.C. or Harbor East space. The cocktail list, too, was a predictable grab for the younger hip crowd—albeit with drinks featuring a lower alcohol content. A Manhattan ($10) was positively watery, and while the Rabbit Hole ($11) tasted pleasantly healthy with carrot and fruit juices, it lacked a hint of the bourbon that it purportedly contained.
On one visit, most of the dishes were decidedly one-note—and that note was salt. The raw mushroom salad ($10), part of Cava Mezze's new fall menu, combined mushrooms with whipped feta, lemon, thyme, and truffle breadcrumbs, but while I could spot some white creamy feta among the mushrooms, all I could taste was salt—so much so that our table couldn't finish the relatively small dish. The roasted vegetables ($10) weren't as oversalted, but tasted as though olive oil and salt were the only adornments. And the grilled octopus ($14), which arrived as a beautiful curly tentacle on a pile of black beluga lentils, had a disappointingly tough texture (though admittedly I'm not a frequent consumer of the dish, so my field of comparisons is small), and would've benefited from citrus, instead of the—you guessed it—salt with which it seemed to have been flavored.
Other non-salty dishes range from OK to quite enjoyable. The falafel fritters ($8), served on a bed of hummus, contrasted a crispy exterior with a creamy interior, though the filling would have been even better with more tahini. I skipped the regular hummus in order to try the more-interesting-sounding fig hummus ($7), but ended up wishing I'd gone with the regular hummus. Instead of any complex flavor profile, it just tasted like sweet fig with the texture of hummus—an odd combination.
The spicy lamb sliders ($12) also suffered from one overwhelming ingredient. In this case, it was the spicy harissa that made it difficult to appreciate the dollop of tzatziki and the lamb meat of the slider (note: the meat was rare, which was OK by me, but that understandably isn't for everyone). The lamb kapama ($13) was sweeter than expected, with the lamb meat flavored with cinnamon and mixed in with orzo and tomato, but once I got over that it was quite tasty, with more complex flavors than the other dishes. I was also a fan of the zucchini fritters ($9), which came out four to a plate. The exterior wasn't as crispy as one would expect from fritters, but the creamy interior was refreshing, especially when paired with the tzatziki sauce on the side.
Even the more traditionally Greek dishes were confusingly inconsistent. A highlight was the saganaki ($10): A block of kefalograviera cheese, doused with brandy, was dramatically lit next to our table with a grand display of flames. The fried cheese, when cut, was delectably oozy, with brandy and lemon juice adding extra flavor that kicked the dish up a notch. Eat this cheese quickly, though: We took a break from it to snack on our other dishes, and when I dug back into it after it had cooled and re-hardened a bit, it was still good—because cheese, duh—but wasn't quite as delightful. The spanakopita ($8), a classic Greek spinach pie, was a surprising letdown. There was hardly any spinach and feta filling compared to most spanakopita, and the pastry dough had been topped with toasted sesame seeds, meaning that the sesame hit you hard as an aftertaste to the excess amount of dough. Perhaps the chefs thought that adding sesame seeds would make the traditional pastry more modern or interesting, but why mess with a dish that's a classic for a reason?
The service was quite pleasant, though. The servers both times asked whether they should deliver the dishes all at once or evenly paced, and when I asked them to deliver them at a pace, brought them out accordingly so that transitioning from dish to dish felt nearly seamless. On our first visit, the manager came over as we were settling the check and said that, because we'd ordered so many dishes off the new fall menu, he wanted to know how everything was. My companions and I looked at each other uncomfortably before I admitted that the dishes could benefit from less salt, the raw mushroom salad especially. He was perfectly gracious about it and insisted on removing the mushroom salad from our bill, despite my protests. And when I visited again later in the week, my server from the first visit recognized me and waved—a bit anxiety-inducing for a food reviewer who would prefer to not be recognized, but a nice gesture for someone who's looking for a place to relax with a friend and to consume a series of reasonably priced small plates. And I've got my eye on Cava Mezze's brunch menu: It features all-you-can-eat dishes for $30 and one-cent mimosas. There's a good chance I'll be tucking into that sometime soon.
Cava Mezze is open for lunch Monday-Friday 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., dinner Monday-Thursday 5-10 p.m. and Friday 5-11 p.m., Saturday 11 a.m.-11 p.m., and Sunday 11 a.m.-10 p.m.