The review of Cassis is probably the toughest to write of all the reviews I’ve written about St. Pete restaurants. Why? For one thing, it’s the current hot spot among locals. It’s the place to see and be seen. It’s probably also one of the best restaurants in St. Pete right now, overall. So, what’s the problem? They raised the bar for everyone, but also for themselves.
Cassis sits in a fantastic location along Beach Drive, what many now refer to as our Restaurant Row of flagship St. Pete dining establishments. It is a beautiful space. Stunning. The decor is similar to Balthazar in NYC, although the space looks (and is) newer and brighter. Subway tiles around the bar, Dijon colored walls, the hanging lights and dark wood all remind me of the city. The menu is somewhat similar to Balthazar, but I think the intention was just to be a typical brasserie menu. And it is. Duck Confit, Steak Frites, Oysters with Mignonette, the Cassis Burger, Croque Monsieur and Madame are all on the menu.
Although most reviews consist of three visits to a restaurant, I’ve eaten at Cassis probably ten times now. I ate there early on after the opening and I could see them working through those little issues that come up with every restaurant opening; small service issues, wait times, orders coming out of the kitchen, etc. Over the past few weeks, they now seem to have hit their stride. They are adequately staffed, the food is coming out timely and they no longer make people wait at the bar for a table when half the restaurant is empty. (I’m not sure if the bar-waiting thing was a consultant’s suggestion or because they were not fully staffed yet, but it was a bad idea. I’m glad they stopped doing that.)
What I’ve eaten: House Smoked Salmon ($9), Oysters on the Half Shell ($12), Steak Tartare ($10.5), Tomato Tartlette ($7.5), French Onion Soup ($6), Pan Seared Sea Scallops ($10.5). (That’s just the appetizers I’ve had.) Entrees and salads I’ve eaten: Lyonnaise Salad, Tomato and Mozzarella Salad and Roasted Beet Salad (each $8), Cassis Burger ($10.5), Steak Frites ($16), 10 oz Delmonico ($21), Free Range Chicken ($17), Braised Beef Short Ribs ($21), Atlantic Salmon ($18). Yes, I know it’s a lot. I really wanted to get a feel for the menu and see the service develop. And no, I don’t have an expense account.
House Smoked Salmon
I almost forgot the desserts I’ve eaten: Tahitian Vanilla Creme Brulee with Lemon Biscotti,Warm Chocolate Cake with Espresso Ice Cream (each $5.5), and Cassis Sorbet ($2).
Let’s start with my faves. The House Smoked Salmon was classic and made perfectly. It was served with chopped caper and red onion and some grainy, flavorful mustard sauce. All smoked salmon should be like this; clean flavors as if the fish just came out of the water. The baguette crisps were so crispy though, they fell apart when I tried to eat them. The Steak Tartare was another treat with tiny cubes of filet and all the accoutrements one would expect. It was fresh,well-chilled and tasty. The Oysters were just the right size (for my taste) and impeccably fresh. They were from Connecticut that day and were bigger than a Kumamoto and way smaller than a Galveston. I know it’s not all about size (hehe) and I don’t like huge oysters. They tasted briny like the ocean and the mignonette brought me back to the first time I ever ate a decent oyster. Fabulous.
The French Onion Soup tasted good, but I felt the stock should have been more reduced and concentrated. It was a little thin. The Sea Scallops were seared perfectly (and fresh-tasting), the cauliflower puree and hazelnut raisin vinaigrette were lovely compliments but the appetizer was a little sparse overall. The Tomato Tartlette had some punchy flavors with the Dijon, Gruyere and tomato. The only thing keeping it from being perfection was the pastry for the tart being a little tough for some reason. It’s not your typical, flaky tart pastry.
All of the salads were better than most I’ve had lately. The Lyonnaise is a poached egg atop a bed of frisee, with crispy bacon, diced potatoes and a sherry vinaigrette. There is nothing like a perfectly poached egg, and they know how to do that at Cassis. Very nicely done. The Tomato and Mozzarella Salad was unexpected because it wasn’t your typical olive oil drizzle with fresh basil. It was done with a balsamic glaze, pesto and toasted pine nuts. Fresh and tangy on the tongue. The Roasted Beet salad was beautiful to look at and the beets were roasted as they should be,but the little goat cheese croquettes were all empty and that was the part of the dish I had been most excited about trying.
The Atlantic Salmon, as with the House Smoked Salmon, was very fresh.The entree was seasoned well, and I have no complaints. The Delmonico was also tasty and tender and the peppercorn sauce was not overly peppery. I have mixed feelings about the Steak Frites. When I read it on the menu initially, I thought it was a great idea to try using skirt steak for the Steak Frites. However, this is a steak that really needs to be marinated to shine, so I felt like the finished dish could have been more tender than it was. The flavors were still hearty and robust and it came with a brown paper bag containing the fries (frites). The fries are freshly made each day. They could have been a little crispier, but they were still tasty and plentiful. The Short Ribs were very tender, fork tender in fact. Not much of the braising liquid (which should be reduced and concentrated) made it onto the plate and the sauce was again a little thin. It was a comforting dish, though, like you would have for Sunday dinner. Another comforting dish was the Free-Range Chicken. It was roasted well with crispy skin. The challenge in making roast chicken as an entree is it has to be made ahead and held for service. That’s going to make it slightly less moist than a chicken you would eat right out of the oven at home. Still, it was seasoned as it should be and a pleasant dish.
Oddly enough, because I don’t eat many burgers, the Cassis Burger was the favorite of all the entrees I tried. It was cooked to my liking(rare) and it was full of tender, juicy goodness on a brioche-style bun. The Swiss was melty, the onions were caramelized and sweet, and the burger was well-seasoned with salt and pepper. Of all the burgers I’ve had in the city, it’s my favorite now. (Although Parkshore’s burger is a close second.)
This burger was so good, I had eaten half of it before I remembered to take a picture of it.
The desserts I tried were all happy endings to the meals I had there. The Creme Brulee was appropriately crispy on top with caramelized sugar and the vanilla really came through. The Warm Chocolate Cake oozed melted chocolate from the center and satisfied that chocolate craving. The outside of the cake was slightly overdone compared to St. Pete Brasserie’s Chocolate Lava Cake, though. My favorite was the simple, but incredibly flavorful Cassis Sorbet. I’m not really a sorbet person, but I actually crave the flavor of this dessert now. I could eat it every single day and not tire of it.
Cassis has everything going for it. Location, great staff and a beautiful space. The service has improved on each of my visits as they have continued to refine themselves. The last couple of visits, the service was flawless. They have a winning menu and every opportunity to be THE best restaurant in St. Pete. All of the food was worth eating, but a few small changes would make it over the top. Reduction of sauces and stocks and crispier fries would be welcome adjustments. For now, Cassis is the darling of St. Pete locals with crowds for lunch and dinner every day. Time, service and the level of passion they execute the menu with will determine how busy they are a year from now.
Cassis is located at 170 Beach Drive NE in St. Petersburg. They are open every day for lunch and dinner, with breakfast coming soon. Reservations are recommended for dinner. Valet service is complimentary. (727) 827-2927