Restaurant Review

Cavé

Paleo devotee and Cavé chef/owner Doug Stehle calls himself the caveman culinarian. Fred Flintstone, eat your heart out.

Sofrito-braised short rib lettuce "tacos" with avocado and salsa.
Sofrito-braised short rib lettuce "tacos" with avocado and salsa.
Photo by Felicia Perretti

It’s almost a shame that Cavé in Avon-by–the-Sea calls itself a “Paleo eatery.” Because anyone who passes this place off as some faddish magnet for CrossFit fanatics is missing out on a thoroughly contemporary and satisfying meal.

Don’t know from Paleo? I’m tempted to keep you in the dark, since the atavistic deliciousness that chef/owner Doug Stehle presents at his homey, 30-seat BYO is so satisfying, you won’t end up giving a hoot. But in short: The Paleolithic diet, popularized by a book of similar name in 2002, has gained notable traction in the last four years as it tries to mimic what our hunter-gatherer forebears ate before there was farming, much less a local Kings.

That means lots of pasture-raised and wild-caught critters from land, sea and air, as well as veggies, fruits, nuts, seeds and eggs. But grains, beans, dairy, processed foods and refined sugars are verboten. The thinking goes that eating foods our bodies initially evolved to digest is just plain better for us. And that’s the food you’ll find at Cavé, which adheres to the diet almost to the letter (except for clarified butter in several of its dishes).

Whether or not Paleo is actually good for us is something this reviewer will leave to the health experts. But eating like a caveman certainly seems to suit Stehle, who was shackled to a grueling job as an executive chef at Robert Wood Johnson Medical Center in New Brunswick when he decided to give the diet a go in 2012.

“I was exhausted, out of shape and overweight,” says the 45-year-old. “Going Paleo made a huge difference. I dropped and have kept off about 30 pounds and have never felt better.”

But why open a restaurant devoted to one offbeat eating style? In a seasonal beach town no less?

“My brother Mike owns a kettle bell gym up the street, and his Paleo clients started paying me to prepare meals for them,” Stehle says. “I got so busy, I was able to quit my day job, become a full-time Paleo personal chef and eventually open Cavé—as in café. We thought it was a pretty good joke.” Stehle, who earned his culinary certificate at Atlantic Cape Community College, now winkingly refers to himself as a Caveman Culinarian and gave his LLC that name.

Stehle’s breezy, white-washed boite—with its mismatched tables and chairs, rustic antique accent pieces, and playful strings of bare bulbs—has a typical farm-to-table feel. But the handful of jeansy and genial young servers, right out of central casting for Portlandia, set the record straight as soon as you sit down. “Are you familiar with Paleo eating? Let me tell me tell you about it!” And so the adventure begins.

Among Stehle’s regular offerings, the pan-seared baby romaine embodied everything this now-ubiquitous starter should be: the hearts slightly cool and crisp and the charred exterior leaves surrendering happily to a vibrant coat of Pommery mustard vinaigrette, a sprinkle of house-pickled red onions and big chunks of crisp Berkshire bacon. For his delectable baby kale salad, Stehle annihilates a peeled lemon (seeds and all), shallots and olive oil in his mighty Vitamix blender, douses the greens with the elixir and tops it off with flavorful pine nuts and frizzles of shallots fried in duck fat.

Under the heading, Bowls of Things, you could go for the caveman chicken soup, which was comforting but under-seasoned. Far tastier was the dense and sultry grass-fed beef chili.  Scented with just the right balance of tomatoes, cumin, cacao powder, ancho chili, coriander and cinnamon, it was bean-free (following Paleo orthodoxy) and capped with ripe avocado. The wowza option, however, is the zucchini “ramen noodle” bowl, so satisfying and fun were the playful tangles of al dente zucchini “noodles,” pieces of chicken and perfectly oozy poached egg in its sinus-clearing, ginger-and-lemongrass-spiked bone broth.

Stehle’s lettuce “tacos” were somewhat less convincing Paleo riffs. Cupped by its little raft of romaine, a tasty BLT, avocado and chicken salad might be a nice option for lunch. But it was no taco by a long stretch. And the somewhat chewy, though flavorful, sofrito-braised beef short ribs didn’t meld with their cold, leafy “shell,” either.

No matter. There are burgers to contemplate. No bun, true. But you’ll be glad not to waste stomach space on such bland frivolity—or on the too-generous serving of fine-but-not-amazing sweet potato salad that comes with the 6 to 8-ounce patties. Stehle starts with top-notch proteins (Wagyu beef, Berkshire pork, turkey and chicken from Princeton’s Griggstown Farm) and builds flavor from there. He adds ripe mango and a homemade spice paste to the grind for his jerk pork burger, and crowns his red-curry-spiked Thai-style turkey burger with house-made Sriracha mayo and pickled veggies. Each was a winner.

But the hands-down rock star was Stehle’s signature, “the bison, the duck and the egg,” a crazily beasty mash-up of ground bison and duck fat, grilled on the flattop and capped with a fried egg, a hunk of ripe avocado and a squiggle of Sriracha. And did I mention the nest of sweet potato hash that happily sops up all that fatty goodness? If Paleo doesn’t pan out to be “healthy,” we’ll sure have some explaining to do to our cardiologists.

The menu sounds lunchy, but a roster of ambitious dinner specials show that Stehle means business at all hours. “I basically see what my vendors have—it could be elk from Canada or venison from New Zealand, Iberico pork from Spain, tuna from here off the coast—and I figure out what to do with it,” he says. Stehle buys only sustainably raised meats and fish, and goes organic whenever reasonable and possible.

On the nights we visited, Stehle’s specials played out thusly: Though I’d never sampled a bavette steak, I quickly fell for this beefy skirt-steak cousin, which was served tender pink, smeared with rosemary garlic butter and accompanied by big meaty slabs of (Dear Lord!) duck-fat-fried sweet potatoes dusted with truffle-scented sea salt.

The duck breast sous vide and confit leg with a cactus pear purée was pure fatty happiness, as well, the juicy breast crisp-skinned from a last-minute pan sear, the confit leg dusky and rich, and the purée a sweet-tart twist on the usual fruity foil. A rack of grass-fed Australian lamb enjoyed a sous-vide swim and a quick pan sear before nestling its juicy rosiness in a pillow of rich cauliflower purée smooth and buttery enough to give great mashed potatoes a run for the money.

Though muffins seemed an odd way to end a caveman dinner, our table ordered a pumpkin chocolate chip doozy and fought for the last bite. The cake, made with almond flour, was dense and (surprisingly) banana-scented (from, well, bananas), with still-molten chips collapsing into the moist crumb. Quickly demolished as well were the insanely flavorful slabs of salty-sweet mocha-bacon brownie and a chewy, satisfying chocolate-chip cookie.

Stehle calls his desserts “Paleo friendly, since the only real Paleo dessert is fruit. But if you need something sweet, ours are made with nut, cassava and coconut flours, no refined sugars, cacao nibs, dark chocolate and lots of love. And they’re a nice treat for just about anyone once in a while.”

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Restaurant Details

  • Cuisine Type:
    American
  • Price Range:
    Moderate
  • Price Details:
    Appetizers, 46-$14; burgers, $13-$16; entrée specials, $16-$40; desserts, $4-$8.
  • Ambience:
    Casual and homey.
  • Service:
    Informed and enthusiastic.
  • Wine list:
    BYO.

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