Cassis - Downtown Not-So-Comfortable Comfort Food
There's been a lot of attention on this little restaurant since it opened last year, and Cassis definitely had the feel of the latest hip, new thing, when we walked into the room on a Wednesday night. Inside me is a natural tendency to shy away from anything too mainstream, so that feel, while highly desirable for a restauranteur, is not exactly what I find welcoming. Stepping in from a chilly, unattractive Pender Street into the room all a-buzz with stylishly dressed, twenty-somethings with excess disposable income wearing lots of black and artsy oval rims was a bit of a surprise for me anyway, as I had only heard that there was French comfort food like coq au vin and daube de boeuf for under $10, and pictured something with a home-y kind of charm. I do have a penchant for modern decor and minimalist lines, and have to admit that their salt and pepper (and white pepper) service was very cute (what can I say? I like tiny spoons), as was all of their china. Anyway, style is great, as long as you have the food to back it up...
Unfortunately, I'm not sure that the food nor the style quite measured up for me. Now, if I was a professional reviewer in a major newspaper, I would be visiting each restaurant at least twice (on an expense account), before settling down on an opinion, and there's a lot to be said for having an understanding about how your particular state of mind is affecting your perception of everything around you. So does a lot of hype before the event. The night that I visited Cassis, I do think I was feeling a bit off. As an example, I ordered a mango daiquiri off their drink menu (yay, girly drinks!) and was anticipating an intense glass of mango puree goodness. I received a beautiful glass garnished very smartly with a paper thin slice of dried pineapple. I was excited because I usually associate that level of style to places that go to as much trouble to get outstanding flavour but when I tasted it, I couldn't taste much at all. In fact, there was so little fruit taste, I thought that the waitress had simply mixed up my order, and brought me a pineapple daiquiri (my clue being the garnish), though it didn't really taste like pineapple either. (They did replace my drink nicely, suggesting I choose the strawberry as they use fruit puree for that, instead of juice). My expectations for this place were so high, that I thought that my taste was dulled - I had my charming foodie dining companion taste and confirm. But later, I was drinking my water (just tap water), and it had an unpleasant overchlorinated taste to it! So for me, the WATER had a stronger taste than their mango daiquiri! Just a side note, I am never that sensitive to the taste of water, and in fact am a big proponent of drinking Vancouver tap water rather than creating more plastic waste in our landfills by drinking bottled water. I normally love tap water. I'm also not one who sends back food comfortably. It takes a lot for me to go to the trouble to do that. And in this case, I would have asked about that drink whether I received it here or at say, White Spot - it was really tasteless. Anyway, the point of all this is to illustrate that my level of expectation was high, based on the visuals and hype, resulting in an overall disappointment with the experience. But that's not to say that anything at this restaurant was ghastly inedible or unpleasant, but just that it doesn't quite make my list of places I'd return to. I still had a great time trying something new, with wonderful company. I've tried to break down the components that I didn't like in some detail, because I know that a lot of people would go to this restaurant and absolutely love it. And that's the great thing about Vancouver - there are so many choices for all of those different tastes out there.
First off, I'm still impressed that servers can remember all their orders without writing anything down. However, if you can't do this, then just go ahead and bring a pad of paper, rather than having to check back and ask again. We started with the goats cheese fondue for two, which was served with grapes and hard, toasted spears of bread. The cheese was fine, but the bread was too dry and not tasty, so I'd have to say it didn't measure up. Any dish that only comprises of three simple ingredients should really have three outstanding choices for it to be a winning dish.
We also had the soup special, a beet and sweet potato soup which was the best part of the meal, and was quite delightful.
I ordered the coq au vin, and it really was quite tasty, with tender chicken and good flavour. It had bits of saltiness in it (pancetta), and a nice rich sauce. It came in a charming French soup bowl on a platter, with a cute spoon of mustard, and some toasted baguettes. Fresh baguette slices were also served with dinner. The thing is, it was charming because it was cutesy, in the same way a toy tea set is cute and charming. But it's a stew! And I found the rim of the bowls got in my way. I wanted to see my food, and dip my bread at the end, and I wanted it to be more...well, just more. I realize that North American serving sizes are bloated and unnecessarily big, and really, this is French cuisine, so it is appropriate that the serving sizes would be closer to that in France, but I just wanted a little more. My companion enjoyed his bouillabaise, but I found it to be a bit "fishy" tasting, and was glad I hadn't ordered it. There is a list of side vegetables and cassoulet, so I guess that one should really order a couple of those as well to make a meal there. I hadn't really noticed them on the menu when we were there. We opted to skip dessert, not because we couldn't fit it in, but because I thought we had a good chance of being able to do it better elsewhere. Maybe I'll come back one day for lunch.
At the end I noticed that they were projecting some images on one of the walls up high, and it just gave me the feeling that they were just trying to too hard to be arty. Perhaps this is the equivalent of the Westernized Chinese food phenomenon. Uninitiated North Americans often expect Chinese restaurants to be casual, and French restaurants to be fancy, while in actuality, Chinese food can reach a high level of sophistication, and French food can be rustic and comfortable. I'm waiting for a hole-in-the-wall French restaurant. In the mean time, here are a couple of recommendations that are completely different concepts, but are both equally successful in what they are trying to do. L'Emotion in North Vancouver is a lovely, fancy dinner type place with French cuisine, and a French country charm. The food, however, is elegant and impressive, as is the service. Burgoo, in Kitsilano, is the epitomy of rustic charm. Almost everything there is big - big chairs, big tables, big bowls of stew, big fondues. Except their flavours. Not so big, not so strong, and to be fair, the Cassis coq au vin was much more complex in flavour. But the stews are still tasty enough, and the place is warm and consistantly satisfying on many levels.