Jesse Mulligan’s Auckland Restaurant Review: In Its New Home On Federal St, Cassia’s Food Is Still Faultless

By Jesse Mulligan
The cured salmon, vegetable stir fry and lamb seekh at Cassia on Federal St. Photo / Babiche Martens


Cuisine: Indian

Address: 90 Federal St, central city

Reservations: Accepted

Phone: (09) 379 9702

Drinks: Fully licensed

From the menu: Pani puri $5ea; oyster pakora $8ea; tandoori chicken ‘taco’ $14ea; tandoori fish $33; roasted carrot $28; black pepper paneer $32; lamb seekh $44; vegetable stir

Rating: 17/20

Score: 0-7 Steer clear. 8-12 Disappointing, give it a miss. 13-15 Good, give it a go. 16-18 Great, plan a visit. 19-20 Outstanding, don’t delay.

This was my first visit to Cassia in its new location — the restaurant space formerly occupied by The Grill at SkyCity, Federal St. After more than one devastating flood at their original site, Sid and Chand Sahrawat took the opportunity to move up town, and who can blame them? I haven’t heard who’s taking over the Fort Lane Basement they vacated though surely it’s a growth opportunity for Kelly Tarlton’s.

The new space is lovely if not massively different to what it used to be at The Grill. Cassia have brought their hanging globe lights with them but otherwise the only major change I noticed was that the chiller fridge in the window was filled with whole fish rather than hanging steaks. A pleasant welcome area, a lush dining room and a big window into a busy kitchen — this is a solid formula and you can’t blame them for investing their money elsewhere.

I arrived and ate undetected which gave me a nice view of how a non-reviewer’s meal is likely to play out. On a Sunday night with, as far as I could tell, none of the regular seniors on duty, it was a dinner of perfect food and mostly good service. The things that went wrong probably wouldn’t stand out at a normal restaurant but, of course, this is one of the Sahrawats’ so you’re evaluating it against the best dining rooms in the world. On that measure there is still a little work to do.

Cassia’s new home features familiar fixtures. Photo / Babiche Martens
Cassia’s new home features familiar fixtures. Photo / Babiche Martens

Most of the problems came down to a slight lack of care and engagement. Like, the girl next to us dropped her fork on the floor and nobody picked it up for her; she shrugged, picked it up and continued eating with it. Later I saw her wiping up her dirty table top with her own napkin. If this was The Grove someone would have lost their job, and possibly their hand.

One waiter tipped a chair over, another heavily knocked my water glass while cleaning up. The guy pouring mint water into my pani puri spilt the bright green liquid into a puddle on my plate as he was doing it. This stuff is fine in isolation but at this level you expect them to be mortified. If they cared, there wasn’t much sign of it.

The guys in the kitchen were doing their job well. Every dish that came out was a stunner — so good that we couldn’t pick a favourite, or a least favourite. You won’t eat better anywhere in Auckland and they’ve done a great job of taking the main drawback of curry night — a lack of fresh vegetables — and turning it on its head.

The oyster pakora. Photo / Babiche Martens
The oyster pakora. Photo / Babiche Martens

You must order the carrots, which are a Cassia classic, simplified slightly since I visited a year ago. The carrots are halved, roasted and served with macadamia textures and an emulsion of ghost chilli which, although it’s the spicy pride of India at over one million Scoville units, somehow contributes its flavour without imparting much of its heat. It’s quite a trick this, one I assume is achieved by whipping up a little bowl of mayonnaise then showing it a photo of the chilli plant.

The oyster pakora is new and I love it — an Indian street-food version of the classic tempura, it’s served with a citrusy sorrel leaf, a dollop of creme fraiche and a pyramid of mustard seeds on top. From the small dishes menu I’d also recommend the tandoori fish — snapper, with a little pumpkin and deeply cooked cabbage, and the black pepper paneer — two cubes of this incredible fresh, mostly flavourless cheese with a lot of spicy sauce and a Sid special: beautiful geometric shapes made of deep fried onion and celeriac to create a piece of sculptural art on the plate.

Vegetable stir fry. Photo / Babiche Martens
Vegetable stir fry. Photo / Babiche Martens

My daughter ordered a vegetable stir fry as a main and though that doesn’t sound very exciting, inevitably everything the Cassia kitchen touches becomes exciting. Featuring loads of seasonal, barely cooked green vegetables in a classic Madras sauce it was the sort of Sunday night curry you fantasise about all day once you’ve locked your reservation in.

The other daughter hasn’t embraced vegetarianism in quite the same way and ordered lamb, cooked in the tandoor on a steel spike. This was another beautiful dish — the little circles of meat piled on to the plate with a bright green spinach-based gravy. Like I say, you’ll get your five-plus-a-day here without even trying.

We didn’t drink much and the bill was $454 for a couple and two hungry children. So, you know, check your credit card balance before you make the booking. The restaurant promised us free SkyCity parking at least, and the maitre d’ breezily validated our ticket before sending us on our way.

The lamb seekh. Photo / Babiche Martens
The lamb seekh. Photo / Babiche Martens

How will I remember Cassia? Mostly for the wonderful food but also for the final few minutes trying to leave the parking building when the machine spat out my ticket and I had to reverse carefully out of the express lane and find a human being for help.

“Nothing is free here,” she told me, asking for $12 to open up the barrier arm. Someone should tell Cassia. I’m sure it’s just a clumsy misunderstanding, but when you have a shot at being the best restaurant in Auckland, these moments can add up.

From dining-out editor Jesse Mulligan.

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