Restaurant review Cassia: a progressive Indian song for trendy cosmopolitans
F(A)RT has always been intrigued by the Indian Cuisine transporting people to exotic “places” through its colours, smells, friendly richness and powerful punch. Recently, this century-old cuisine has been revamping its cheap-but-good take-away image by combining old-time honoured cooking techniques with different products, progressive aesthetics and eclectic flavour patterns. In other words: it’s time to leave behind the traditional “Chicken Tikka Massala”, “Vindaloo” or “Biryani” and to start embracing innovative street food and dematerialised curries bringing along new arrays of textures, aroma’s and spiciness. Luckily, those innovative establishments are popping up everywhere: from Amsterdam to Bangkok and from Bali to New Zealand. There’s thus no need to go far away to find such epicurean treasures.
As every wave of modernisation is in need of a spiritual godfather paving the way for innovation, whether Bocuse in France, the Brothers Adria in Spain, Renée Redzeppi in Scandinavia or Massimo Bottura in Italy, this emblematic role could, in the Indian food scene, quiet easily be attributed to Gaggan Anan. In his newest restaurant “eat at Gaggan” in Bangkok, this visionary chef redefines some aromatic joys of Indian cuisine and brings alive unprecedented creations evoking a crucial question: “How could Indian gastronomy be renewed whilst preserving its traditional essence?”
This question echoed all the way to New Zealand, where Sid Sahrawat replies in all artistry to these ontological issues. With the latter’s three flagship restaurants: “Sidart”; “Sid at The French Café”; and “Cassia”, this chef seems to be at the foreground of elevating Indian culinary roots through its progressive cuisine. As his former two restaurants have been awarded numerously, our F(A)RT reporters chose Cassia as their hotspot for the night.
Entering Cassia, a venue situated below ground level, is like stepping down a dim-lighted cave of forbidden pleasures. The interior, which is dominated by spooky-black concrete floors, cushy seatings and aluminium structures, excavates a sense of millennial adagio: some sort of cosy minimalism wrapped up in a luxurious coat. This dark-but-intimate atmosphere is further emphasised by design light bulbs initiating a double-sided voyeurism game, leading all eyes to a large open kitchen where steam and sweat rhythmically evaporate under the stringent orders of Maître Sahrawat.
For all fans of aromatic wines, which pair wonderfully well with hot food, Cassia proposes an extensive list of Riesling, Gewurztraminer and field blends on the menu. Despite the idea that “choosing is loosing”, a long and thorough discussion with a knowledgeable waiter led our reporters to a Gewurztraminer from Domaine de Schlumberger (2016). As powerhouse producer of this wine, it displayed intense smells of white flowers, honeysuckle, jazz apples, pineapple and chia seed, tasted semi-dry, was high in acid and contained a medium+ oily body. Good for one glass but way too overwhelming for a bottle. We would therefore recommend going for the wine pairing option complementing the degustation menu. For those interested, Cassia also proposes a range of innovative cocktails bundled in Indian twists.
The degustation menu
The first amuse-bouche “panipurri” made sure to set a high standard for the rest of the degustation menu. While originally being a snack made from flour, spiced water, onions, potatoes and chickpeas, mainly served in the Eastern part of India, Cassia gave it a new twist by infusing the spiced water with mint water and by adding fermented cucumbers to the scene. In short: a small flavour bomb lingering long after the spiced climax was attained.
This emulsion of flavours was followed by a course composed of carrot, coriander, macadamia and brown butter. A savoury and hearty combination, rather playful in terms of textures and flavours. Whereas some coherence between the ingredients used was lacking, the next dish presented a perfect harmony and complexity between the tandoori fish, curry leaf, leek and gunpowder. The tandoori tenderness counterbalanced the freshness of the leek while the slight bitterness and umami of the gunpowder were simply stunning.
However, if one dish should score an eleven out of ten, it would undoubtedly be the Goan lamb chops. Whether because of its days long marinade, its extensive use of unknown spices, its dressing of crispy leek poppadum, cream of parsnip or its perfect balance between juiciness and smokiness. This mouth-watering downfall evoked a sense of nostalgia, dragging each one of us to a loved-fetched family dinner around an Indian grandmother’s fireplace. It evoked images, smells and tastes of an India one may have never seen nor experienced. The lamb on itself should be treated as a culinary gift, therefore precluding any additional addendum (although very well thought out) that may have a neutralising effect on the orgasmic potency of the lamb. Therefore, don’t rush into Cassia's vegetable-like creams. Although these masterfully suppress the meat’s spiciness, it tends to render the food heavier than Indian cuisine already is. Whereas the crispness of the poppadum was pleasant on the palate, it left a touch of greasiness that systematically reduced the taste of the oh-so-divine chops.
Our reporters tightened their belts for the next dish as they were told it would be a swirling ride. A “vindaloo”, in simple language, is an immensely spicy but creamy tomato sauce with onions, pork belly and different structures of green apple. Here, the pork belly was perfectly glazed and came out juicy whilst the subtle sweet flavors of the raw apples, rather acidic, complemented the rich sauce and matched perfectly with the pork belly. While definitely transforming the restaurant into the “hottest day at the office”, the garlic naan, crunchy and roasted to excellence, managed to balance the flaming screams.
Cassia’s trademark shined bright through that last dish: a fine attention for the right cooking, flavouring and grilling technique of proteins. Combining those with different structures of raw vegetables and/or fruits which, due to their acidity, bitterness and, sometimes, sweet notes, soothe the mouth a little. This dialectical structure of dishes, supplemented here and there by a certain earthy, savoury or aromatic crunch (such as naan, poppadum, nuts), provides customers with a holistic physical experience (taste and body respond simultaneously) where the time-honored cooking techniques and purity of products are focused on.
There was definitely no better way to end this rollercoaster of flavors than with the following classic extinguisher. Blown over from the heydays of the formalistic French fine-dining scene, a palate cleanser was served: a sorbet of mango with a gel of ginger supplemented with some caredemom. In terms of texture and taste, the dessert could not have been prepared any better. Although eclectic, it was delicious! Chocolate popping triangles, crumbling hazelnuts, raspberry mountains and beeswax crystalised honeycomb. Eating this dessert is like making your way through a temple full of structure looking for the sweet gold. Although succulent, after such a "full" menu, this dessert may literally be a bit too much of the good stuff. Also, in light of local and ethical produce rules, one may wonder in how far raspberries are available in wintertime.
All in all, dining at Cassia is an excellent experience in which one’s tastebuds can find a new home every time these touch the ground. Most remarkably, Cassia takes Indian cuisine forward by imbibing cutting edge cooking techniques, working with fresh produce, presenting it novel and showcasing the whole cultural spectrum with dishes from across the continent while keeping its traditional soul alive. With the increasing acceptance of Indian cuisine in our daily lives, this “experimental” revolution will most definitely intensify with chefs and restorers. However, at Cassia the phase of acceptance is over: Simply sit back and enjoy the ride!