In a very enjoyable recent article for Vanity Fair, Corby Kummer bemoaned the 'tyranny' of the tasting menu. "How," Kummer asked, "did the diner get demoted from honored guest whose wish was the waiter’s command to quivering hostage in thrall to the chef’s iron whim?" My thoughts exactly. In London as in America, an increasing number of restaurants - usually, but not always, the kind helmed by ambitious young chefs who include hubristic vacuities like 'reaching for the [Michelin] stars!!' in their Twitter bios - offer only tasting menus, even at lunchtimes when most right-minded diners don't even want two courses, never mind eight and up.
As a diner, I generally shy away from tasting menus for the reason that having what I eat in which order and at what speed dictated by the kitchen is the polar opposite of how I like to eat out; I have a great deal of respect for many chefs and restaurateurs but as a paying customer I like meals to be about my choice and convenience, not theirs. And as a writer I tend to avoid them because tasting menus have almost always to be served to the whole table and it's terribly boring to write (and read) about a meal only saying, "We all had the soup, and then we all had the halibut, and then we all had the duck" and so on ad infinitum.
But a tasting menu that genuinely serves to showcase the talents of a brilliant chef, perfectly balanced, carefully timed and matched with expertly chosen wines? Now you're talking, and that's exactly what's on offer at Cassis, the smart Provencal bistro in Knightsbridge where I enjoyed a meal that, on reflection, was probably the single best restaurant meal I ate in 2012.
I've visited Cassis (and liked it very much) before and was lured back by an invitation to see what new executive chef Massimiliano Blasone - ex of Apsley's - was doing differently. The answer is, in a good way, not much; the upscale bistro menu, mindful of but not enslaved to the cuisine of Provence, is still there. What Blasone has done is to add some exceptional pasta and risotto dishes, and refine presentation so that what's on the plate is as visually impressive as owner Marlon Abela's art collection on the walls.
After expertly-mixed Martinis by way of aperitifs, my artist pal Paul Vyse and I started with sea bass tartare, coarsely-cut, silkily-fresh fish bound in a subtle trace of goat's cheese with a dash of citrus and sandwiched between crisp sesame wafers. Geometrically arranged on a plate decorated with a stripe of piment d'Espelette, the precision of presentation and equilibrium of flavours served as a clear statement of intent for the dishes that would follow.
Ethereally light cod brandade was perfect scooped up with its accompanying black olive tuile, while tart rhubarb marmalade countered the richness of caramelised Landes foie gras, dusted with bitter chocolate powder. Black Angus sirloin steak tartare - an additional dish included at our request - was surprisingly light, its spicing subtle enough to allow the flavour of the beef to dominate. Rabbit ravioli with pistachio cream was more robust, the nutty, rich cream stopping just shy of being actually sweet.
Lobster risotto was gloriously rich, dusted with saffron and containing generous translucent, just-cooked slices of lobster tail. Seared scallops, served with a pea puree as vibrant in taste as of colour, were similarly well-timed, lightly crusted from the heat of the pan and inner-cheek tender inside. A subsequent game dish, a classic combination of vividly red venison with red cabbage, was cooked sous-vide but retained far more texture than this fashionable but, I find, often disappointing method of cooking usually permits. Roasted sprouts provided additional crunch.
After a palate-cleansing mouthful of lime jelly came a trio of desserts: a chocolate sundae of sorts, a raspberry sorbet of the like I could happily eat after, or indeed for, every meal, and an elegant seven-layered assembly of ganache and wafer in chocolate crumb that reminded me, wonderfully, of an extremely posh Drifter. We somehow managed the dainty chocolate and fruit petits-fours that provided the finale to this note perfect, epic meal.
Massimiliano Blasone is clearly a prodigious talent; his cooking is intelligent, precise, innovative and exhilarating but also, refreshingly in a time when many chefs appear to be trying to outdo each other with the obscurity of their ingredients and idiosyncrasy of technique, really rather accessible. Less accessible - unsurprisingly - is the price; the seven-course menu we enjoyed is £75 with wine flights at £30 or £50. I'd certainly suggest letting the sommelier choose wines for you, as we did; highlights included a wonderful green-appley Albariño with the brandade, Monbazillac with the foie gras and and a really exceptional 'L'Instant' rosé from Provence with our ravioli.
Service throughout was knowledgable, attentive and polished, and if I have one reservation about Cassis it's that the overall identity and decor of the place don't quite seem to marry up with the aspirations of the kitchen. The food might be Provencal, but casual bistro this n'est pas, and with Blasone's addition of Italian dishes to the menu this crisis of identity seems even more pronounced. Marlon Abela has for some time now been rumoured to be bringing his high-end Italian brand A Voce to London; perhaps with a simple name change for Cassis and some minor cosmetic tweaking he could achieve it on this site.
Corby Kummer dislikes tasting menus, as explained in his Vanity Fair piece, because they are 'tedious; surprise and delight and originality shouldn’t be banished'. They're certainly not banished at Cassis, where surprise, delight and originality are to be found in every course.
Cassis Bistro, 232-236 Brompton Road, London SW3 2BB Tel: http://www.cassisbistro.co.uk
Posted by +Hugh Wright