Review: Bryant Ng’s Cassia in Santa Monica stars a brilliant pot-au-feu
Pot-au-feu is at the heart of the French kitchen; more than a beef soup, it is the enduring symbol of hearth and home, an emblem of a life well lived. The revolutionary Mirabeau called pot-au-feu the foundation of empires. Anthony Bourdain calls pot-au-feu soul food for socialists. In “Lolita,” Humbert compares his ex-wife to a glorified pot-au-feu. There have been extended treatises on the ideology of pot-au-feu.
As every classically trained chef knows, Michel Guérard, the standard-bearer for nouvelle cuisine and still one of the best chefs in France, first came of notice with his version at the namesake Le Pot-au-Feu in the 1960s — an elevation of the humble family dish into something worthy of Michelin stars. A good pot-au-feu — clear, nourishing broth, tender meats and vegetables each cooked to its turn — requires a remarkable attention to detail and a good deal of time.
So if you were going to tease out the ambitions of Cassia, Bryant Ng’s sprawling Santa Monica restaurant, you should probably take a look at his pot-au-feu, which is a statement of purpose written in carrots, broth and beef. Ng, a young chef who has earned practically every honor it is possible for a young chef to win, may be most familiar from the Spice Table, an Asian bistro shut a couple of years ago when the Metropolitan Transportation Authority claimed its land for a subway project. He is also a protégé of Nancy Silverton who spent time in the French kitchens of Daniel Boulud and Roland Passot, and he grew up in the kitchen of his grandparents’ Cantonese-Polynesian restaurant in Santa Monica. He has a lot of influences to unpack.
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Ng’s pot-au-feu is at first glance indistinguishable from the classic: short ribs gently simmered in broth, potatoes and carrots, a marrowbone jutting from the tureen, a little dish of mustard. But it is served in a Chinese sandy pot, the kind you’ve seen in a million Hong Kong-style restaurants. The consommé is clear and strong, but it is scented with the burnt onion, cinnamon and star anise of a Vietnamese pho (which probably in some way derived from the colonial pot-au-feu in the first place). You will not find the coarse salt and cornichons, but you will find a scattering of chopped Vietnamese herbs.
It is not quite clear whether you are supposed to lift the meat and the vegetables from the broth onto the plate as one would with a traditional pot-au-feu — the servers provide no guidance — or whether you are supposed to prize the marrow from its bone with the provided oyster fork and smear it on grilled bread. Neither are there traditional pho condiments. But the pot-au-feu is brilliant and soothing, the crossover successful: Ng, trained at the Cordon Bleu in Paris, is claiming the essence of French cooking as his own; colonizing the colonizers.
Cassia is not a gastropub.
Occupying a big, barn-like ground floor in a corner of Santa Monica now occupied by sleek condos and post-production houses, Cassia, run in collaboration with Zoe Nathan and Joshua Loeb of Rustic Canyon, is part of the return to the big, nearly democratic eating halls of the 1980s, signaled by Redbird, Odys + Penelope and Republique. Ng, the opening chef of Pizzeria Mozza both in L.A. and in Singapore, knows how to budget for crowds. There are pleasant sidewalk dining areas and an open kitchen. The bathrooms are hidden in a weird annex down a hall.
Where the Spice Table leaned Singaporean, focused on chicken rice, kon lo mee noodles and the grilled meats at the heart of any self-respecting hawker center, Cassia is mostly Vietnamese but placed within the context of French cooking. It is bistro cooking enlivened with the occasional dash of tamarind or spice; the cassia tree, for which the restaurant is named, is the source of Vietnamese cinnamon. Many of the dishes are not just seasoned with it but also served with a Vietnamese table salad of Vietnamese basil, acrid rau ram and cilantro. (If you’re looking for pennywort, opal basil or sawtooth leaf, you’ll probably going to have to wait.)
So where Bestia’s Ori Menashe shows himself best with the Italian meats he cures and Terrine’s Kris Morningstar with his French ones, Ng’s charcuterie plank includes whipped fatback with slivered Vietnamese herbs, a slab of a loose, surprisingly delicate terrine rimmed with yellow fat, a kind of ruddy salami flavored with Vietnamese spices, air-dried lamb and spicy candied bacon, served with a fermented cabbage relish — like the best conceivable deconstructed bánh mì, if you care to look at it that way. The logical next dish to try after the charcuterie is Ng’s luscious grilled pigtail. You peel off the soft, caramelized meat with your fingers, fold it into tiny leaves of bibb lettuce with sprigs of rau ram and dip the packets into a dish of the sweet-tart Vietnamese fish sauce nuoc cham.
There are raw marinated tiny scallops with herbs, heaps of chile-soaked grilled chicken wings, cucumber salad with toasted chunks of flatbread that comes off as a kind of Asian fattoush. A crunchy, mayonnaise jellyfish salad had the smack of church picnic chicken salad about it. Fried cauliflower is glazed with fish sauce. A bowl of the laksa noodles, so popular in Singapore, is thickened with coconut milk and positively stinky with what I assume is the Malaysian fermented fish belacan. A perfectly good spice-rubbed grilled chicken, boned out for easy slicing, tastes exactly like a traditional classic lemongrass chicken.
Maybe the best thing you can eat at Cassia is the flatbread, somewhere between Indian naan and the crisp pizza Ng used to make at Pizzeria Mozza, served with a little crock of chopped snails zapped with garlic and lemongrass and strewn with more herbs, a dish that seems to encapsulate L.A.'s culinary moment, the erasure of boundaries between expense-account dining and street food, pretty well. (You can also get the flatbreads with pâté or curried chickpeas if snails aren’t your bag.)
Does everything work here? Not entirely. Black cod in a pot, looking a lot like the classic Vietnamese caramelized catfish but made with black cod, was a little overcooked, a little grainy and plunked into a bland broth soured with tamarind. I know what they were trying to do, but it didn’t really work. The “charcuterie fried rice’’ tends to be hard, gummy and under-seasoned, no matter how much kitchen-made lop cheongsam makes it into the dish. (I was expecting, perhaps unreasonably, either something like the clay pot barbecue rice you seen in Hong Kong-style restaurants sometimes or a delicate, luxurious fried rice that one might feel was worth $16.) If you are expecting the vermicelli with grilled pork belly to be anything like the bun cha ha noi you may have had on your last visit to Brodard, you’re probably going to be disappointed.
But if you’re a baller, or even if you just play one on TV, you’re probably going to want the white pepper crab, a fat crustacean, plump with roe, crusted with turmeric and spice, an inspired, stinging take on the famous black pepper crabs served at the seafood restaurants on Singapore’s east coast. It’s a big improvement on the black pepper crab canapés Ng used to serve at the Spice Table. And if you have $60 burning a hole in your pocket, you’re going to want one.
Like every high-profile opening at the moment, there is a decent selection of high-acid natural wine at Cassia but also an emphasis on cocktails. Try the Sunny Place, made with tequila, mezcal and sambal bitters. It is the only cocktail I have ever seen whose menu description includes a warning to customers who might be allergic to nuts and shellfish.
The much-anticipated new French-Vietnamese restaurant by chef Bryant Ng in Santa Monica.
Location: 1314 7th St., Santa Monica, (310) 393-6699, cassiala.com
Prices: Appetizers, $9-$15; charcuterie platters, $20-$38; flatbreads, $13-$18; main courses, $18-$60; rice and noodles, $15-$18.
Details: Open 5 to 11 p.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays, 5 to 10 p.m. Sundays. Credit cards accepted. Full bar. Valet parking.
Recommended dishes: Charcuterie plate; flatbread with chopped snails; white pepper crab; Vietnamese pot-au-feu; Vietnamese coffee pudding.
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