I should have had Cassia on my radar before my trip to Santa Monica, but I didn’t. I only had eyes for “Gwen,” the new restaurant from Aussie celebrity chef, Curtis Stone and his brother, Luke. Technically Gwen is in Hollywood, but that’s another story for another time.
Today I want to tell you about Cassia, which turned out to be a wildly pleasant surprise among three days of many dining triumphs.
I read about two-year-old Cassia in a “Where to Eat in Santa Monica” article in a local magazine in our hotel room, waiting for the unseasonal fog to lift. Later I learned The New York Times sent Pete Wells, their dining critic, to Cassia, his first foray into the wilderness. Wells occasionally reviews restaurants outside of his New York beat, much to some industry folks’ chagrin.
Cassia is a partnership between two couples, Bryant and Kim Ng, and Josh Loeb and Zoe Nathan. Josh and Zoe own other Santa Monica restaurants, the including the celebrated Rustic Canyon, Huckleberry, and Milo & Olive, all on Wilshire Boulevard.
An arranged marriage between boisterous Southeast Asian flavors and casual California panache, Cassia (pronounced KAH-see-ah) is a “fusion” restaurant. I hate to use that term because in most instances it isn’t a compliment. This time it is.
The agricultural bounty of Southern California is evident in the ingredients — seemingly just plucked herbs and vegetables, freshly harvested seafood, meaty proteins with provenance. The dishes themselves, which trot from Indonesia to Vietnam to Southern India and several points between, are polished with French bistro finesse.
Many Santa Monica restaurants have a raw seafood bar, and Cassia is no exception, but the rotating options have an Asian slant, whether it’s in the raw scallops drizzled in chile oil, or fresh shucked oysters served with a lime mignonette.
Cassia is known for a handful of signature dishes, including grilled pig’s tail that is carved table side and served with lettuce and herbs for wrapping the charred tail meat. We opted for a green papaya salad. A towering pile of spiral strands of crunchy green papaya that had been tossed in a zingy lime, cilantro, and mint dressing. Whole leaves of peppery watercress added even more fresh green bite. Studded with punishingly spicy lacquered walnuts, the relief came only from another bite of the chilled fruit.
Koda Farms in Central California, the oldest continually operated family farm (1928), provided the chickpeas for a mild coconut curry served with addictive clay oven-baked naan.
Seared, marinated black cod arrived swimming in a steaming, delicate, slightly salty anchovy broth, covered in an herb salad and brightened with a sweet-tart lychee relish.
Malaysian Kon Loh Mee reminded me of Dan Dan Noodles, without the Sichuan peppercorns and peanuts. Instead, the dry-sauced ground pork and egg noodles were punched with a vibrant house made Sambal sauce.
I don’t remember all the options on the dessert menu — I seem to recall something lemon-lime, a banana situation, and the required chocolate dessert. I can’t imagine any of them topping the silky Vietnamese coffee pudding. I’ve never connected with the real thing. Too sweet. In pudding form, it finally makes sense. The smooth-but-assertive coffee gets a gentle nudge from a tangy, unsweetened top layer of cream.
There are a dozen other dishes on the menu that I wish I could have ordered. Another signature dish is a Vietnamese pot au feu, a beef short-rib stew with bone marrow and walnut mustard. Or I would have loved to try pork meatballs in a cashew curry with tomato. Of all the restaurants (eight in all) we visited in three days, Cassia is the one I desperately want to return to first.
From the first bite to the last, Cassia delivered balanced yet bold flavors that lingered long after our plane jettisoned back to Phoenix the following day.
1314 7th Street, Santa Monica