Restaurant review: Cassia, Ponsonby

By Kim Knight

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Address: 5 Fort Lane, Auckland
Phone: (09) 379 9702
Rating out of 10: Food: 7.5, Service: 8, Value: 6, Ambience: 8

Photo / Jason Oxenham
Photo / Jason Oxenham

More protein, please.

First World food writers have been wrestling with their consciences recently.

From the United States to the United Kingdom, they've produced a swag of thinkpieces urging, well, a rethink, on the middle class obsession with "cheap eats".

Why? Because there's something a little bit racist about happily paying top dollar for a bowl of Italian pasta — but expecting change from $20 when the same ingredients (wheat flour and egg) are served as Chinese noodles.

"Authentic" doesn't have to mean Formica tables and plastic cloths. And a restaurant that specialises in a particular cuisine shouldn't be forced into an endless rotation of that cuisine's Greatest Westernised Hits (here's looking at you, butter chicken!).

At Cassia, the ethos is Modern Indian. Owner and chef Sid Sahrawat says he's showcasing his heritage through contemporary cuisine — classic spice and flavour combinations, reworked.

So, no butter chicken. Actually, no chicken at all tonight, because my guest is vegetarian.
Enter Cassia off Fort Lane, down the stairs and into a warm underground cocoon of exposed red brick wall and sepia-toned lighting. The service is excellent and the wine list includes one of my favourites — Lawson's "Pioneer" gewurztraminer — by the glass ($14.50). I felt luxuriously cosseted. Definitely safe enough to order, sight unseen, a vegetarian version of the five-course, $80 tasting menu.

The regular includes fish, beef short rib and lamb chops, but it starts, as we did, with pani puri. This cold, crisp shell is semi-filled with potato and chickpea then topped up at the table with a spicy water. You have to eat it fast (the water starts leaking immediately) and in a single mouthful.

Megan looked dubious. And then, disaster. It was too big for her mouth. Spicy water everywhere; crispy shell caught in her throat. An amuse-bouche is supposed to stimulate the appetite. In this case, it brought the diner to tears.

Discs of smoked potato, a rich tomato kasundi, charred brussels sprouts and tiny blobs of paneer curd followed. Very pretty and very tasty, but totally eclipsed by the next course.

Spiced baby potatoes, paneer, kasndi, and red cabbage. Photo / Jason Oxenham.
Spiced baby potatoes, paneer, kasndi, and red cabbage. Photo / Jason Oxenham.

The highlight of the evening contrasted slippery slabs of shitake mushroom with miniature florets of cauliflower pakora and a paper thin artichoke crisp. Two roasted macadamia nuts lurked in the bottom of our plates. It was delicious and clever, and it really nailed the Cassia brief.

Unfortunately, our next two courses — spicy aubergine with green beans and sliver of coconut, and a sweet potato vegetable curry — blurred into a single taste, not unlike the earlier potato dish. In summary? There were high notes, but overall, our meat-free menu lacked light, shade — and protein. No pulses, not enough nuts and paneer employed as a mere bit player. When a plate of buttery naan arrived with the curry, we practically inhaled it.

We rejoined the regular tasting menu for dessert (white chocolate sponge, passionfruit sorbet and an interesting date puree) but the most telling moment of the evening was the "pre-dessert" carrot macarons.

Megan noted that my macaron was bigger than hers. Perhaps the waitstaff had simply noted the earlier amuse-bouche incident — but it's never a good sign when you're looking hungrily at your companion's plate, four courses in.

We spent: $80 a head for the vegetarian tasting menu.

- Canvas

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