On the homepage for Cassia, Bryant Ng’s Southeast Asian brasserie in Santa Monica, you’ll find a black-and-white photo of the chef’s grandfather straddling a Norton motorcycle in a pinstripe suit in front of his high school in Canton, China. The picture was snapped in 1912, a few decades before the man on the motorcycle would move his family to the Westside of Los Angeles and open Bali Hai, a warehouse-sized Cantonese-Polynesian restaurant with fire-eaters and tiki cocktails.
Owning restaurants, apparently, runs in the family. Ng grew up peeling shrimp and cleaning bean sprouts in his parents restaurant Wok Way, a Chinese-American enterprise in Northridge. He would go on to study molecular biology only to ditch his degree and enroll at Le Cordon Bleu.
After stints at Daniel, La Folie, and Pizzeria Mozza, Ng opened Spice Table, a critical darling that met its untimely demise when the LA Metro deemed it the perfect site for a new subway station. Whereas satay was the go-to order at Spice Table, the pot au feu, laced with pho spices, is the dish that made Cassia. In his Los Angeles Times review, Jonathan Gold called the mash-up both “brilliant and soothing.” In short, he said, Ng is “colonizing the colonizers.”
A lot of writers and critics have called Cassia a Vietnamese brasserie. Is that how you would describe it?
I would call it a Southeast Asian brasserie. There are influences from all of Southeast Asia, and as we grow there will be more influences from China. But I don’t disagree with critics calling it a Vietnamese brasserie. The influences at Cassia lean more towards Vietnam.
Is that because it also leans more French?
It does. Vietnamese and French flavors meld a little better. When you look at Malaysia and Singapore you have a lot of robust, bold, super funky flavors that you don’t find in Vietnam. In Vietnam it tends to be a lighter palate. If anything the funk comes from fish sauce or shrimp paste, but the way it’s used also tends to be more delicate.
You studied at the Cordon Bleu in Paris and later worked at Daniel. Is the French influence a part of your DNA as a chef?
France was a life experience for me. For the first time, in a European/Western sense, I saw what food meant to a culture. I can’t say that growing up in LA I experienced that same reverence for food. We were fortunate to have a lot of different experiences—Korean, Chinese, Mexican—but in France food is part of the culture.
How was the Vietnamese food in Paris?
Some of the best Vietnamese food I’ve ever had was in Paris at a place called Le Bambou. I went there when I was going to school, and ten years later I’m in Paris with my wife, Kim, on our honeymoon, and she was like, “Oh, there’s this place that my friend told us about and they say it’s really good.” We started walking there and I’m like, Oh shit! It’s the exact same place! Best pho I’ve ever had. We went twice during that trip.
Your wife, Kim, is also your business partner. Is she Vietnamese?
Kim is Vietnamese. Cassia is really an ode to her family. Her mother, before she passed, and her aunt taught me so many things. Also, traveling to Vietnam I felt like I understood her a little bit more. There is a generosity in the culture—a lot of poverty too—but it’s so generous despite that, and for me, that was really impactful.
When you opened Cassia, was the history of France and Vietnam on your mind?
Kim and I have a lot of discussions about that. It’s a sordid history. It’s bad. Really bad. When it came to designing the aesthetics for the restaurant, we didn’t want to celebrate those things that were colonial. There are restaurants where it’s part of the theme, but we tried to avoid it because we don’t want to celebrate that part of the history. It’s sort of hypocritical that I’m taking the food, and somehow that’s okay? But it’s just about trying to honor the culture in different ways.
The most French-Vietnamese dish on your menu is the pot au feu. Why did you choose to call it pot au feu instead of pho?
When you look at the base of the dish itself, it’s pot au feu. It’s very classic French style.
Before we opened Cassia, Kim and I were in Montreal and we went to this French brasserie that I love called L’Express. The food is so simple: steak frites, pot au feu. And pot au feu is so unassuming. Some vegetables—cabbage, carrots, potatoes—broth, and some meat. They serve it with Dijon mustard and cornichons; it’s so flavorful and soulful. When I was looking at that, I thought, What if we did a version of this when we open Cassia?
At Cassia we serve it with Dijon (I add a little walnut oil in there), and instead of the cornichons I use pickled shallots, which are ubiquitous in Vietnamese cuisine. And I added a spicy sauce, because why not?
Because it’s delicious.
Yeah! I hope it’s one of those dishes that respects both cultures, and ultimately, at the end of the day, you close your eyes, eat it, and it’s just delicious. In the end that’s all that matters, right? You close your eyes, you like it, it’s as simple as that.
Instead of making a traditional consommé you clarify the broth by scrubbing the bones. Where did you learn that?
I spent a few days cooking with my friend Vo Quoc in Saigon. He owns a few restaurants in Saigon and a cooking school where he teaches kids who don’t have any other education. He showed me how he uses a toothbrush to really get in there. So that’s what we do at Cassia.