Chef Bryant Ng and Kim Luu-Ng, who earned national acclaim at the late great Spice Table, teamed with Josh Loeb and Zoe Nathan on Cassia, an ambitious Asian brasserie in Santa Monica that draws on the culinary traditions of Hong Kong, Singapore and the “circular relationship” between Vietnam and France. The space seats 200 people on the ground floor of a 1937 Art Deco building that’s recently served as a Verizon call routing center. Now the building is more notable for a raw bar, wood grill and dishes that include “sunbathing” prawns, Singapore-style white pepper crab, Vietnamese pot au feu and Asian-influenced charcuterie. I toured Cassia with Bryant Ng and Josh Loeb prior to their hotly anticipated June 13 opening, and they shared insights into their partnership and concept.
The partners had a big space to contend with, but Loeb said, “We wanted it to feel cozy.” His mind kept returning to Balthazar, the bustling Manhattan brasserie with different environments that “feels fun and festive.” However, he noted, “Traditional French food didn’t sound fun to us.” Loeb knew that Ng and Luu-Ng were forced to close The Spice Table to make way for a regional Metro railway connector, so he called them. The couple was planning to re-focus their efforts downtown, but after visiting the promising space and getting to know Loeb and Nathan better, they became convinced Santa Monica was the right play. “The more we got to know each other, the more we realized we had the same values and thought about things the same way,” says Loeb. “It sort of became a natural fit.”
Montalba Architects, who designed Huckleberry Cafe, Milo & Olive, the Milo & Olive remodel, and all the Sweet Rose Creamery locations, shaped the space. A bar and bistro seating gives way to counters at the sunlit raw bar and wood grill, which features the same copper hood and birdcages the Ngs had at The Spice Table. Call this section “Mini Spice.” Outside, you’ll find an open-air patio with wood tables. It’s possible to order every menu item in any environment. Cassia also has a private dining room behind wine shelves that seats about 20 people. Kim Luu-Ng created the floral design through-line.
A full bar resides right by the entrance, where bartender Kenny Arbuckle creates market-driven cocktails inspired by the flavors of Cassia’s food, including the Banana Mule. Seven taps pour craft beer, including a custom Craftsman brew. Kathryn Weil Coker, who will run the adjacent wine bar, Esters, is overseeing a wine program with minimal markup.
Ng has assembled an all-star cast in his kitchen, primarily with people he’s worked with before. For instance, Joe Marcos (Ugly Drum) joined him on the line 14 years ago at Campanile, and is once again by his side in Santa Monica. Ng consulted on Pizza East for Soho House in London and worked with Soho House executive chef Matt [Armistead], who is now Cassia’s chef de cuisine. [Mendocino Farms co-founder] Judy Han is on Cassia’s opening team. So is John Stenbakken, recently chef de cuisine at Pizzeria Mozza in San Diego. Zoe Nathan and her culinary lieutenant Laurel Almerinda co-created the dessert menu, which includes a Vietnamese coffee pudding and a green tea Napoleon with strawberries and cherries. Front of house is also packed with familiar faces, including former Spice Table GM Leah Haimowitz and Mozza grad Ralph Waxman.
“I’ve never worked with a better group of people,” said Ng. “Everybody could literally open their own restaurant, on their own, but they’re all coming here together to help us be a part of opening this restaurant. It’s so great for me, obviously, because it’s less stressful.”
Loeb added, “I’m so impressed by this team. Bryant and Kim could do this on their own. They don’t need us to open a restaurant, but I feel like it’s better because we’re all doing it together.”