Sep 19, 2014 Restaurants
Words: Simon Wilson. Photos: Ken Downie.
5 Fort Lane, central city. Ph 379-9702. cassiarestaurant.co.nz
Wednesday-Friday noon-3pm; Tuesday-Saturday 5.30pm till late. Dinner bill: Dishes to share, $6-$8, $14-$22, $25-$29; desserts, $15.
Published in Metro, October 2014.
I wasn’t going to have dessert. The first time I went, I didn’t have time; the second, I thought, I’ve eaten enough food here now to know how good it is. But the waitress talked me into it, and now she’s my favourite Aucklander. The pannacotta with lychee sorbet at Cassia comes closer to perfection than seems decent for a mere plate of food.
They serve it in a beautiful display rakishly covering half the plate. There is an intense flavour of rosewater and little crunchy sunflower seeds. The sorbet is delicate, not one of those big globes of coldness that destroy the subtlety of everything else the chef puts on the plate. The pannacotta itself is cardamom: richly flavoursome, like the rosewater, but not overly so. The whole is only mildly sweet, which I love, and served in a portion size that’s generous, not gross. You feel sated. You feel complete.
It’s a dish that expresses the essence of Cassia: modern Indian, a restaurant devoted to serving really good Indian food in a smart, comfortable environment, with excellent service and extremely good things to drink. A restaurant we’ve been waiting for, a place that sits between two poles — fine dining and ethnic eatery — and raises the bar for both.
I wouldn’t want to take anything away from the other good Indian restaurants in Auckland. As our Cheap Eats list in the current issue suggests, from Mt Roskill’s hole in the wall Tandoori Hutt to the established delights of Paradise and Satya, there’s a lot of fine Indian eating to be done around town. Go up in price a little from those places and you’ll find more: iVillage in the Victoria Park Market leads the way there.
But Cassia is something else again. The chef is Sid Sahrawat, whom we named chef of the year in May and who still operates his fine-dining establishment, Sidart , in Ponsonby. He’s sourced his menu from several Indian regions, adapted and refreshed it and piled in the inspiration and skill.
Front of house is co-ordinated by Matthew Aitchison, formerly of Masu and The French Café. “No white tablecloths!” he likes to say, by which he means he’s freer than he used to be, but which also serves to highlight the casual charm of this place: simple wooden furniture, some quite gorgeous tableware, a flurry of low-hanging lighting globes overhead.
It’s bigger than you might think, too, with a long central room, and three further rooms beyond. One’s fully private; just the spot for that special group occasion. Another features a stunning photographic display of revellers at a Holi Festival.
Drinks? Well, there are six gin and tonics, each made with a different gin, different kind of tonic and different fruit. Recommended, for sure, though I don’t want you to think I’ve tried them all. Also recommended is the “Darjeeling tea party”, a whisky concoction reminiscent of a whisky sour, only better. And the wine list? Short and smart, as it should be. They’ve got Villa Maria’s SV Ihumatao verdelho by the glass, and if, like me, you prefer aromatic wines that aren’t actually sweet, you might find this exactly hits the spot.
And yet, while you can certainly go to Cassia for the drinks — they have a long bar where you can sit up and watch the cooks — it would be awful not to eat as well.
They serve scallops with foie gras and apple and a little curry emulsion: it’s the kind of starter that picks you up, gently but firmly, and transports you to fantasyland. Eggplant comes fried with mushrooms, onion seeds, cows’ curd, fresh chilli and mint; “Delhi duck” features kumara, lychee and fried basil; lamb chops, exquisitely pink, are presented in a dish of fenugreek and onion rings. You get the idea: the curries are delicious, but it’s never just about the gravy.
The soft shell crab, cumin flavoured and accompanied by pickles, comes wrapped in a batter so light it’s like slightly crunchy, slightly chewy froth, and the flavours chase each other around your mouth with infinite subtlety. The naan’s a revelation of flavour-filled lightness, too.
Is there anything wrong with Cassia? Well. Don’t sit too near the door on a cold night: it slides open and there’s a bit of a draught. And there’s nothing fiery on the menu, which does seem a shame. You can ask them to add more chilli, of course, but that’s not the same as eating a dish conceived as properly hot in the first place.
Still, I can’t wait to go back.