By TOBY HATCHETT
December 05, 2008 6:00 AM
PORTSMOUTH — Cava, the tapas bar and restaurant, opened last week in downtown Portsmouth. Word of mouth on the new establishment is spreading fast.
Cava is the name of a Spanish sparkling wine. Cava also means "cave" in Spanish. But when you go to Portsmouth's Cava think Spain, Portugal, Lebanon, northern Africa, southern Italy and so on.
AT A GLANCE
Owners: John Akar and Gregg Sessler
Location: 10 Commercial Alley, Portsmouth
Hours: Open 7 days a week - 3:30-5:30 p.m., afternoon tapas; 5:30-9 p.m., Sunday through Thursday; 5:30-10 p.m., Friday and Saturday.
The owners, John Akar and Gregg Sessler, were best chums way back in high school in Exeter.
Sessler's fiancee, Kristin Lane, is the pastry chef. Lane found the listing for the property on Craigslist. At the time, Akar was bartending at Agave, another Portsmouth restaurant, and Sessler was still in San Francisco.
"The mezze plate is all of my father's recipes," said Akar. "He's Abdallah Akar and from Lebanon. You can't get more authentic than this, and already it's one of our most popular items on the menu.
"It was always our dream to open a restaurant in Portsmouth," said Akar. "The timing was just perfect for us to make it happen now."
Akar and Sessler began working in restaurants when they were 16. Sessler attended Paul Smith Culinary School near Lake Placid, N.Y., then went on to work and own a restaurant in San Francisco. Akar got his business degree at the University of New Hampshire.
Now, the two are united in their new and first venture as a team.
"We thought about this for a long time," said Sessler. "The aim was great food at a nice price point. You can come sample tapas in the afternoon for $1 and $2, and taste some great wines."
Cava serves its fine selection of wine in three sizes, tasting, half glass and full glass.
"This is really catching on," said Akar. "People just like it. Last week a couple lined up 10 tastes and made notes."
Even the specialty drink list bears the names of those involved with the restaurant — from Akar's signature marguerite to a drink invented by their contractor, and one by Bridget Sullivan, girlfriend of Akar and a bartender and manager.
Four can sit at the chef's table at the cooking station. Customers can watch Sessler and his staff prepare everything, from start to finish, as well as chat with the chefs.
There are 48 seats. In the spring, there will be 26 outdoor seats on the patio.
"We did the design ourselves, with help from friends, of course," said Akar. "I think we're the first restaurant in Portsmouth to have floor glass. We're also very proud of our downstairs bar and seating area."
Both Akar and Sessler stress their goal for Cava was to make it a comfortable, inviting environment where people know each other. The menu — which features small plates, medium plates and small bites — is large and varied, changing frequently.
Akar said the wine list will change every two to three weeks, so wine patrons can keep on coming in to sample and drink new wines.
"This is a very big wine town," said Akar. "It supports three very fine wine stores, and this is great for us.
"One of the reasons we wanted to be here is that Portsmouth is such a vital restaurant town," he said.
Sessler loves the idea of serving tapas. He said the variety available in this type of cuisine is immense. It can be whatever you imagine based on the availability of ingredients, from local to those from the Mediterranean region.
"We've spent so much time on the Seacoast," said Akar, who has been a bartender at the Oar House and other restaurants. "Our clientele already know us, and they are helping to spread the word."
Sessler, who spent the last five years in San Francisco, said he is thrilled with the level of sophistication he is finding now in Portsmouth.
"The time just couldn't be better for us to open Cava," said Sessler. "I know people say the economy is bad and it is, but it's not bad for our restaurant, and we believe it will work and be a success.
"I think we fill a gap in some of the cuisine offered," said Sessler. "There's room for lots of good restaurants in Portsmouth. We're thrilled to be here now."