This inconspicuous premises on Middle Street has certainly had a chequered past in the last 20 odd years. It once housed The European Table, if anyone remembers, with a large and very bizarre water feature. Their solution to having their main dining room in a windowless basement was to paint some windows on the walls. Usually I can remember everything I ate in every restaurant I have ever visited, but strangely for me I can’t remember anything I ever ate there. I’m sure it must have been deep fried brie and seared duck breast sort of a place. Sometime after that it was the popular (re-located) Scotty’s, with long queues on the stairs for a seat in the best burger joint in town. It spent a short while as Mustard. I never did go in there as I was always next door slurping noodles in DaTang. It then lay vacant for quite some time until just a few weeks ago when it took on a new persona.
Now it is a comfortable home to Cava Bodega, a reincarnation of the hugely popular Cava of Dominick Street. That premises having closed in January following a rental dispute. I could find many clichés to use here, ‘every cloud has a silver lining’, or ‘when one door closes another one opens’ but it will suffice to say that the rental dispute just might be the best thing that ever happened to Chef Patron, JP McMahon. The opportunity to do something different, but do it the same, is a rare thing. There has been a much needed cull of the menu, they have gained a better room for their style, the very definition of up-cycle, re-use and re-purpose. Disused barrels as lampshades, raw wood, brick and concrete, old wine boxes brought to life again as a bar. As before, the kitchen and floor staff are second to none.
Last year I seem to have spent a lot of time eating pork belly. This year the theme was flowers. Sometimes a welcome addition to a plate, sometimes so heavily strewn on the ubiquitous slate so as to make a dish look like a Catholic primary school’s tribute to Our Lady. Not anything you would wish to dig your cutlery into, unless perhaps you had had the foresight to bring your gardening folk along. Cava Bodega quite sensibly took this opportunity to jettison most of the micro salads, the pea shoots and the flower arrangements, and while the plates are still pretty the food is allowed to speak for itself. I went along to Cava Bodega for their opening where they served a selection of their delicious pinchos (Spanish canapé) and glasses of cava (naturally!). There was a ‘block party’ feel to the evening as the local tight-knit hostelries and restaurants joined together to welcome this former ‘Westender’ and to make them feel at home.
JP McMahon, Galway’s answer to Fergus Henderson, always walks about with a pigs head under his arm or a fine jambon over his shoulder, if we are to believe the publicity shots for his three restaurants. The day I went for supper in his newest restaurant, he had no meat about his person that I could discern. It was of course possible that he had some charcuterie in his chefs whites but it would have been rude of me to inquire as to the contents of his pockets. In Cava Bodega he serves my kind of food, the edible magic that results when pig meets spice and curing time and magnificent cheeses, piled on bread with piquillos and a drizzle of olive oil. The slow cooked cheeks, hearts and extremities that I love, and that were simply not available in Galway when Cava closed.
Their cellar carries a wide variety of very good Spanish wines and sherries. The wine menu is divided into a number of categories based on the character of the wine, for ease of ordering depending on preference. There are some beers, ciders and of course cava. The menu, though suffering from a bit of origami, is equally easy to navigate, divided into vegetable, fish and meat sections, nibbles and desserts. Tables are provided with excellent bread, oil and vinegar and, as is the case with a tapas menu, the scaled down portions means expanded choice. We ordered four tapa to start off with and an elegant slate of goats cheese and fig cake arrived first. Pigs cheeks followed quickly and were tender, but not falling apart in a sweet, aromatic soup of apple, sultana and tomato. Earthy chicken hearts in cider with chorizo were devoured, using the bread for mopping up the thin juices, greedily like candy. Pigs head fritter with beetroot and hazelnuts was next with not a scrap left on the plate. I realize this is starting to sound like Hannibal Lecter’s last supper but deciding we still had a little bit of room we ordered a lamb heart dish stuffed with chorizo and cooked in beer, this required a refill of the bread basket for even more mopping up. A little dessert of blackberry ice-cream, leaning nicely towards a sorbet rather than gelato, with perfectly ripe fresh figs, and just two edible blooms, completed our meal. The bill came to €38.25 for two – excellent value for the quality and variety we enjoyed.
If you want 100% authentic Spanish tapas we are lucky enough to have the excellent Lunares on Woodquay for that sort of thing. Cava manages not to fall into the trap of trying to be too authentic, a danger especially in a tapas bar with no Spaniard in the kitchen. It is its own invention, with the best of Irish and Spanish produce it is neither truly and completely one nor the other, but balanced between the two food cultures, a see-saw, back and forth. They pick and choose the parts that work best and melt them into one or the other, meandering pleasantly between both accents.
I could look for something to criticize, the menu layout is clumsy requiring constant twisting to find the right way up to read it, the signage is not properly centered over the door, but hey, I’m just clutching at straws here. Of the three Restaurants owned and operated by husband and wife team JP McMahon and Drigín Gaffey in the EatGalway Group, it is Cava Bodega, even more so than Michelin starred Aniar, that has earned a place in peoples’ hearts and certainly in my own. I will always pick Kai over Eat, if I have managed to walk that far down the West, I may as well keep going, a personal preference. Aniar is a food concept, intellectual eating, a different experience entirely. But Cava Bodega, for me, is just right. Welcome home.
Cava Bodega, 1 Middle Street Mews, Middle Street, Galway. Open from 5pm to late, 7 days a week. Telephone: (+353) 91 539 884. Bookings: firstname.lastname@example.org
Written for and published in The Galway Advertiser, 10 October 2013.