In the current doom-laden economic climate it is rather uplifting to visit a nascent restaurant where few expenses have been spared and even the Matisse’s on the wall are original. I’m a sucker for a restaurant preview or ‘soft opening’ as they are known in the industry. There’s always a bit of a distraction with carpenters, photographers or PR gurus plying their trades on the shop floor as the ‘live’ deadline approaches but hey, you get to eat there prior to the dining masses and before the likes of A. A. Gill or Jay Rayner suggest you ought not to bother.
‘cassis’ (yes it is lower case) which is named after the Provençal fishing port and not the soft fruit, is the latest venture of the well-heeled and luxuriously inclined Marlon Abela Restaurant Corporation (MARC), who also own Mayfair stalwarts the Greenhouse, Umu and Morton’s Club. Styled as a bistro offering ‘cuisine de Provence’ cassis is making a spirited effort to cast off the trappings of formal fine dining and loosen up a little. There are no table cloths and the dining area, which incorporates 70 generously spaced covers, is light and airy. The menu has a strong Mediterranean leaning and dishes are broken down into 4 sections: ‘Petites bouchées’ (literally small mouthfuls), Entrées, Plats Principaux and Desserts. The Petites bouchées are an enticing selection of (great value) pre-starters and one could (perhaps should) tarry here and possibly skip a later course. Three small slices of warm Pissaladière were faultless and five snails in pastry flambéed in Pastis were equally delicious with a deft aniseed kick. Most intriguing of all were little stuffed pastries called ‘Barbajuans’ variously filled with goat’s cheese, spinach or chicken livers – hot, tasty and uplifting comfort food to tickle the most jaded of palates.
When we visited on Monday lunchtime young chef sommelier Arthur de Gaulejac was on hand dispensing sage advice and some cracking wines by the glass. Arthur is passionate about wine but not at all stuffy and is well suited to the relaxed environment at cassis. He has assembled a 750 bin list that majors on Southern France but includes plenty of gems from elsewhere and a selection of over 80 wines under £50 - a boast few Knightsbridge restaurants of this calibre could make.
‘Entrées’, which fall somewhere between a generous starter and modest main course, also showed culinary imagination and technical flair. Globe artichoke stuffed with spiced mince and chorizo, was perfectly cooked and subtly seasoned as was a dish of fried squid with pessata, that had also been stuffed, in this instance, with Piquillo pepper.
By this juncture we were fairly well-filled ourselves but we managed to polish off a gamey-yet-soothing bowlful of pappardelle with wild boar and chickpeas - just the thing to accompany a brooding Bandol or robust Corsican red on a chilly winter’s day. A perfectly à point roast Landes duck breast was nicely offset by a sharp cassis sauce but it was greed not hunger that was driving us now.
Selflessly we forwent desserts but those served to the adjacent table did look very good. Service was both charming and efficient and the various breads (a qualitative barometer if ever there was one) were all delicious. Coffee was good and strong but not sufficiently warm – a very minor criticism of an otherwise faultless performance.
I’m not sure it’s good form to review a restaurant at the rehearsal stage, especially when you have a vested interest as a supplier and you weren’t presented with a bill but cassis represents a welcome breath of fresh air in the capital and - as Arnold Schwarzenegger would say - “I’ll be back!”.
cassis 232-236 Brompton Road, London. Tel: 020 7581 1101