Cassia is a spot that creeps up on you slowly. The space is so big and flashy, its feel so of-the-moment, it would be easy to down a few well-made cocktails and order a couple of dishes from the long, slightly overwhelming menu and think, “Nice place, good flavors,” yet never notice that this isn’t just another delightful but familiar Asian-ish hot spot (which seem to open weekly in L.A.). You might eat here and miss how inventive the food really is, how uncommon the quality.
Perhaps the pedigrees of the parties involved might tip you off. Cassia is a project put together by two couples, Zoe Nathan and Josh Loeb and Bryant and Kim Ng. Nathan and Loeb have already given Santa Monica some of the Westside’s best restaurants: Rustic Canyon, Milo & Olive, Huckleberry. The Ngs were responsible for Spice Table, the Little Tokyo restaurant that was beloved for its Southeast Asian cooking. Spice Table closed at the end of 2013, pushed out of the brick building in which it resided to make way for a Metro project.
As chef at Cassia, Bryant Ng has brought some of the sensibility that made Spice Table such a favorite, but the context is slightly different. Here, he’s riffing on the interplay between French and Vietnamese cuisines, both the influences that are born of the historical French occupation of Vietnam and crossovers born of Ng’s imagination. Cassia is part grand brasserie and part modern Asian eating house.
Housed in an art deco building next to the Santa Monica Public Library, Cassia has soaring ceilings and a brass-accented dining room that’s far bigger in scale than anything these four restaurateurs have done in the past. From Spice Table, Ng has brought his collection of slightly battered birdcages, which hang throughout the space as architectural light fixtures. There are wooden tables and muted gray circular banquettes, a buzzy bar area, an ice-heaped raw bar, a wood-burning oven and a glass-fronted charcuterie meat locker. The restaurant is massive.
The menu, too, is huge, and follows the laws of a brasserie with offerings from the raw bar, a charcuterie section, small plates and larger plates. You can order a chilled seafood platter in various sizes, but rather than the tower of chilled crustacean bits that’s customary, you get a sampling of Ng’s cooked and raw cold seafood creations: a bowl of large prawns bathed in an aromatic Vietnamese hot sauce; smoked salmon dip topped with fresh salmon roe and served with grilled country bread; hunks of raw scallop in chile oil with tiny bits of ham and corn and gobs of fresh herbs; long spindly king crab legs cut lengthwise so the sweet meat is easy to access, topped with a lemongrass fish sauce and a flurry of shiso leaves. At $45 for the small platter, which also comes with six raw oysters, this is an incredible treat.
The charcuterie board follows suit, taking the European form and upending it, with gamey wisps of dried lamb, thick candied bacon, a terrine they’re calling “Vietnamese meatloaf” that’s mild and lightly gelatinous and meatily delicious, and a bright pink, soft bologna-like sausage that’s exactly smoky and spicy enough to make it surprising and delightful.
Much has been made of the Vietnamese pot-au-feu, which has quickly become the restaurant’s signature dish for its clever mash-up of the French stew and the Vietnamese soup. One of pho’s etymological origin stories has the noodle soup named in part for its similarities to the French staple, and Ng’s version plays on those similarities, replacing pot-au-feu’s traditional, mild beef broth with a fragrant, herb-laden concoction. A marrow bone sticks out from the bowl, and you can choose to spike your stew with bird’s eye chile sauce and complement the hunks of tender beef with a walnut mustard.
While the pot-au-feu is certainly recommended, you’d do just as well with any number of other dishes. The lamb breast is showered with multiple types of chiles (including Sichuan peppercorns), turning its grill-blackened skin into a ruddy crisp of sticky heat and fat. The thick laksa noodle soup delivers a swampy curry full of mussels and shrimp. It’s pure, stinky comfort.
Nathan and Loeb’s restaurants have always had a focus on wine, and here they home in on the kinds of whites that go with Ng’s spicy/sour/funky flavors. Across the breezeway is Esters, their newish wine bar, where you can stop in before or after dinner and hang out on the cushioned banquettes along the sidewalk. It all feels very convivial, more social and breezy than the brash or intimate vibes Santa Monica restaurants usually deliver.
Anyone familiar with Zoe Nathan would expect desserts here to be fantastic, and they are, in part thanks to Nathan and in part thanks to Laurel Almerinda, who manages the bakery component of the Nathans’ operations. A frothy Vietnamese coffee pudding is light and ethereal and pantomimes cutely as a cappuccino in a mug. But the dessert that really floored me was a simple citrus and coconut tart, its buttery crust full of puckery curd, a smattering of sweet/sour passion fruit seeds on top. It fit the spirit of the place so well: an elegant ode to what both Europe and Asia have taught us about deliciousness.
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As I said, the excellence of Cassia kind of sneaks up on you. Dish after dish, you find yourself exclaiming, “This is fantastic!” — and after a few meals I realized I had said exactly that about everything that had hit the table. It may look and feel like just another trendy restaurant, and certainly there is a sense of taking all that’s fun about big, fashionable places and pouring those elements on thickly. But Cassia delivers so much more in the substance of the cuisine, so much more heart and flavor and ingenuity. If the setting is big and loud and fun, all the better.
CASSIA | Four stars | 1314 Seventh St., Santa Monica | (310) 393-6699 | cassiala.com | Tue.-Sat., 5-11 p.m.; Sun. 5-10 p.m. | Entrees, $15-$60 | Full bar | Street and city lot parking