Pete Wells, The New York Times’s principal restaurant critic and the subject of a New Yorker article this past week, drops a three-star review on Santa Monica’s Cassia this week as a part of the Grey Lady’s attempt to widen its influence. It’s the first starred review the Times has ever awarded to a restaurant outside of New York City, and the honor goes to Bryant and Kim Ng’s year-old Singaporean-Vietnamese eatery.
The overwhelming theme of the review is the balance that Ng achieves in the cooking.
Bryant Ng, the chef, isn’t in the business of scrawling his signature on other countries’ cultures. He doesn’t max out the fat and the funk, the standard tactic now for American cooks who want to let it be known that they are down with Asian cuisines. He’s more focused on balance than extremes.
Wells also raves about the lamb breast:
It’s the lamb breast, though, that really shows off Mr. Ng’s skill for harnessing the energies of his ingredients. Cumin seeds and Sichuan peppercorns have been stuck on the meat, and then a big flame-red gob of sambal has been dropped on top. Sesame sauce and a bed of jasmine rice lap up the spices. The dish could have landed like a brick to the back of the head, but its powerful flavors are handled with some delicacy.
Though it seems like Wells has made his way through some of LA’s most notable places, he recommends Cassia because one reason:
Because, while Cassia is not the epitome of any particular trend, most of the food coming out of its kitchen is just really delicious.
While it’s certainly strange to see the New York Times critic award stars to a Los Angeles restaurant, perhaps it’s because our city’s paper of record doesn’t award stars, and hasn’t since S. Irene Virbila regularly filed reviews. Jonathan Gold has always taken a fairer approach to writing reviews, and not having to award stars for the LA Times makes his work a bit less controversial week to week. Besha Rodell and the LA Weekly does award stars out of five, but the Craig Claibourne system of awarding up to four stars seems to be more of the national standard.
Will Pete Wells review another restaurant in Los Angeles in the near future or will he head to another large dining scene like San Francisco’s?