Cassia by Bryant Ng (Opening Night)
Cassia*, the highly anticipated Singaporean/Vietnamese/Southeast Asian brasserie from acclaimed chef Bryant Ng, his wife Kim Luu-Ng, and partners Josh Loeb and Zoe Nathan of Rustic Canyon, Huckleberry, Milo & Olive, and Sweet Rose Creamery fame, finally opened this weekend! To recap, Ng’s The Spice Table closed at the end of 2013 due to the MTA’s plans to run a Metro rail line through Little Tokyo. Cassia was to open last year, but the Art Deco building that houses it needed to undergo seismic retrofitting first, putting the restaurant’s plans into a holding pattern.
*Not sure how to pronounce Cassia? I say KAH-see-ah, but staff says kuh-SEE-ah. Let’s call the whole thing
Suddenly, a flurry of press came out last month on the restaurant, and anticipation spiked among friends and food enthusiasts alike. I’ve only seen this much excitement over an opening a handful of times recently, with Evan Funke’s Bucato, Kris Yenbamroong’s Night+Market Song, and Wes Avila’s Guerrilla Tacos taking over Katsuji Tanabe’s Mexikosher space. (Just seeing if you were paying attention on that last one, which is not true!)
Having waited a year and a half, and after seeing some of the dishes on Instagram from the private preview nights last week, I knew I had to go on opening night! With friends Natalie and Nick, and with my nine-year-old daughter in tow, I arrived at Cassia 15 minutes before they opened and ended up being one of the first paying customers to walk into the space.
And what a gorgeous space it is, with an expansive bar to your right as you enter, a separate raw bar backlit by tall, bright windows, and a chef’s counter underneath rustic birdcages, in front of a large wood-burning grill by the kitchen. The exposed loft-height ceilings throughout made me feel like I was in the Arts District rather than in Santa Monica.
We started off with drinks. Cassia’s wine program is curated by Kathryn Weil Coker of Rustic Canyon. She and her husband Tug, with Loeb/Nathan, will be opening Esters across the lobby from Cassia in August. It’s a wine bar/shop that’ll also serve small bites from Rustic Canyon chef Jeremy Fox. Not being an oenophile, I did not partake in wine (Nick had a glass of red later in the meal and really seemed to enjoy the Sean Thackrey he ordered). Instead we ordered some cocktails.
Not sure who the mixologist of the house is, but the drinks we had were all superb! Nick said his Lava Flow, a Hawaiian take on piña colada that involves strawberries—here, a strawberry-basil syrup—was almost too easy to drink. My Galangal Mule was tart and spicy, with a heady combination of banana-infused gin and galangal/ginger/lemongrass syrup. Natalie’s Cassia Dirty Martini was probably the “dirtiest” I’ve tasted, with smokey-buttery notes from the housemade olive brine.
[Update: The restaurant informed me that Kenny Arbuckle is their bartender. He’s previously worked at Bestia, La Descarga, Doheny, etc.]
For food, we started off with a bright Smoked Salmon Belly from the raw bar. [Pro Tip: Get the Seafood Platter! Even a Small appeared to have a full portion of the salmon belly, as well as the Vietnamese “Sunbathing” Prawns, and a few king crab legs and raw oysters, for less than ordering a la carte!] We also tried the Chopped Escargot, with some delicious, fresh-baked/grilled flatbread to sop up the gastropods swimming in garlicky lemongrass butter!
I had heard chef Ng was curing his own Asian salumi, so we couldn’t pass up the Charcuterie Platter. From the spicy/sweet baconesque Singaporean Grilled Candied Pork, to the pepperoni-like Smoked Red Sausage, to Ng’s rhyming Sichuan Lamb Ham—a sheepish take on bresaola, each cured meat had its own character, and all were fantastic. Per Natalie, the Vietnamese Meatloaf was like the chả trứng that comes with cơm tấm, Vietnamese broken rice dishes. Accompanying everything was the house Cabbage Relish. The Salted Pork with Grilled Bread was served separately; that whipped pork fat, with a little bit of chicharron crumble, gives the lardo in B.S. Taqueria‘s clam taco a run for its money!
For her main course, Natalie opted for the Jellyfish Salad, which was more shredded (organic) chicken than jellies, but it’s Santa Monica, so we “get” it. And it was a very tasty chicken salad! ;-) Nick ordered the Grilled Creekstone Farms Steak Frites, with an interesting Phú Quốc island fish sauce au poivre. The fries were pretty great too!
I remembered seeing an Instagram post from chef Ng, around the time he announced the closure of The Spice Table, over a year and a half ago, showing the mise en place for Charcuterie Fried Rice. For whatever reason, that really stuck with me. So when I saw the dish on the menu, I knew I had to order it for my main, and it definitely lived up to expectations!
The rice had quite a bit of kick from the Thai chiles. The Chinese bacon and lap cheong gave the dish some meaty oomph. But the best part was the salted fish, which I had expected to be broken up chunks of salt cod or similar, but instead were shirasu, salted baby sardines, whole, with beady eyes that my daughter thought were staring at her, to the extent that she wouldn’t try the dish! That’s okay, more for me!
For dessert, Nick and Natalie had the Deep Fried Paris-Brest, a choux pastry shell that is apparently fried rather than (or in addition to) being baked. It was so light and crisp and filled with a tangy lemongrass ice cream I had initially assumed was from Sweet Rose Creamery but is actually made in-house! My daughter and I shared the Summer Fruit Floating Islands, with fresh peaches, apricots, and raspberries, presumably from the Santa Monica farmers market. The passion fruit crème anglaise was so smooth and tart! Rather than a traditional meringue, the “island” was a perfectly roasted/toasted marshmallow! Apparently, Cassia has three pastry chefs making the desserts, including Zoe Nathan herself. Not sure who was responsible for our desserts, but both were amazingly good.
It’s never fair to review a restaurant on opening night, but Cassia had probably the smoothest first night of service that I’ve seen! If there were any issues, they were invisible to us. The restaurant was not mobbed right at open. Rather, a steady stream of customers kept the bar and dining areas fairly busy the entire time we were there. Waitstaff were all on-the-ball, answering questions, filling waters, parsing out courses, and clearing plates. Chef Ng was busy expediting in the kitchen and did not work the room, at least not during our meal, but Josh Loeb and Kathryn Coker made the rounds to ensure diners were enjoying themselves. Everyone around us seemed to be having a good time–we certainly were!
The only part of our meal that gave us pause was the portion size of the Charcuterie Platter. We opted for the Medium, which, at $27, was supposed to feed 3-4 people, but it really seemed portioned for 1-2. We were served just two slices of each type of charcuterie, and the salted pork came with two pieces of toast too. I even asked the server who brought out the platter, and he confirmed it was a Medium. We were all wondering how much, or how little, the $18 Small would have been.
[Update: The restaurant informed me that the Charcuterie Platter we received was indeed a Small and not the Medium we ordered and paid for. They apologized for the confusion and mistake.]
(I’d love for Bryant Ng and Jeremy Fox to have a charcuterie-off. Josh Loeb, please make this happen!)
With everyone in the party on a shoestring budget, we did not partake in any of the larger dishes (except for Nick’s steak), so I don’t presume to have a good handle on chef Ng’s vision for the restaurant after our meal. However, all the dishes I had at Cassia were excellent, so I have full faith in the rest of the menu! Tops on my must-try list are those sunbathing prawns from the raw bar, the Vietnamese Pot Au Feu, and the market-priced Whole Singaporean White Pepper Crab—$60 on opening night.
I’ll definitely be back! So, Cassia soon! (Sorry.)
1314 7th St
Santa Monica, CA 90401