Worth the Hype: Chef Bryant Ng Wows Again with Cassia

 

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There aren’t many restaurants we can get all of Los Angeles’ chefs to agree are good, but Chef Bryant Ng’s The Spice Table was one of them. Having been forced out of its Little Tokyo location by the construction of a new Metro station (eminent domain strikes again), the shuttering of The Spice Table left a hole in LA’s dining scene where the restaurant’s spicy sambal fried potatoes, grilled pig tails, and laksa once held a beloved place.

Luckily for us, Angelenos can now get a taste of Ng’s cooking again with Cassia, the serendipitous collaboration between two of LA’s most celebrated culinary couples: Ng and his wife Kim Luu-Ng, and Zoe Nathan and Josh Loeb (of the venerable Rustic Canyon, Milo & Olive, and more). The group opened Cassia to a packed house in June, with Ng at the helm as executive chef. While diners will find some familiar Spice Table items at Cassia, the restaurant’s menu is a slightly more elevated take on Southeast Asian cooking, with French brasserie elements sprinkled throughout.

Unlike The Spice Table, Cassia is quite large. Warmly lit and buzzing with vibrant energy, the restaurant is housed in a gorgeous old art deco building, replete with The Spice Table’s signature bird-cage light fixtures. When I visit, Cassia is absolutely filled to the brim, but service is timely and friendly. The real standout, of course, is the food.

 

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Ng’s menu is unapologetically Southeast Asian. His heritage is Chinese-Singaporean, and the menu also reflects his wife Kim’s Vietnamese heritage. While Cassia touts its French Brasserie elements, the French side is obvious more so in the idea and the structure of the menu than the dishes themselves, with the offerings broken up into sections like charcuterie, chilled seafood, grilled, etc. Still, how does Ng merge the humble roots of Asian cuisine with the indisputably higher-end image of Cassia, and of French culinary traditions? “A lot of the cooking is grounded in comfort, a street food kind of vibe,” he says. “But I think for me, the use of ingredients really helps sort of reconcile the difference.”

That difference shines in dishes like Cassia’s Chino Valley egg custard. It’s a delightfully silky smooth creation, steamed with an umami-packed broth, along with braised mushrooms, and topped with uni (sea urchin roe) and a sprinkling of scallions. Together, it’s a creamy, savory flavor bomb with bursts of brininess that will surprise you with the simplicity of the dish’s composition.

 

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Ng tells me the dish is a variation of a Chinese savory custard he grew up eating, and in fact, much of his cooking is steeped in nostalgia. “I was born in the states, but I remember going to Singapore almost every year to visit family, my father coming home in the morning with breakfast,” he says. “It’d be laksa in a plastic bag that’s tied up really nicely with a rubber band. That’s a taste memory from my childhood that informs my menu.” The slick, spicy laksa is not for the mild of heart, as it’s packed with chewy slices of fishcake, shrimp, and rice noodles, and anchored with a curry-laced “broth” that’s so thick it’s more sauce than soup.

The laksa, among other dishes, is served in portions meant to be shared. As I broach the topic of the upcoming holiday season, Ng tells me, “The holidays are about getting together with family and friends. The restaurant itself is a celebration of that. Even in the way we want people to dine, it’s family style. Coming from an Asian household, that’s just how we eat. We want to recreate that for people. Why? It’s creating a special event, every day.”

Though they’re meant to be shared, Ng’s dishes are so good you may want them all to yourself. On this occasion, I greedily consume the Vietnamese pot-au-feu, Ng’s take on a French beef stew. Creekstone Farms short rib is stewed until meltingly tender with potatoes, cabbage, and carrots. It’s served with bone marrow and grilled bread to smear the buttery goodness on, accompanied by bird’s eye chili sauce, walnut mustard, and pickled shallots for condiments. The best part, though, is the broth. One sip takes me back to my childhood, hanging out in the kitchen watching mum and dad slaving away in front of a gigantic pot of phở. When I tell Ng this, he points out that Vietnamese phở likely came from the French dish. He explains to me, “Pot-au-feu started as a very traditional and humble French dish … The story goes that pot au feu was maybe a precursor to phở itself during the French colonization of Vietnam. Phở probably came about from adding spices, herbs, and different elements, like noodles.” As a lifelong phở-lover, I’m slightly embarrassed I’d never made the connection.

Putting aside my lack of phở-history, it’s to be commended when a chef makes you ponder the origins of your food. Too few chefs do, and I’m thoroughly impressed with everything that Ng’s served. Each bite is familiar in composition yet fresh and imaginative, a winning combination for the taste buds. In a sense, eating at Cassia is like a trip back in time to places held in chef Ng’s memories—a trip I’d certainly take again.

 

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Cassia | 1314 7th St., Santa Monica, CA 90401

Photography by John Linden 

 

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