St. Petersburg’s Beach Drive promenade is aglow with holiday décor, and no place is more beautiful than the Cassis American Brasserie.
There are the requisite trees with seasonal ribbons and tiny white lights, but there’s also a line of large square umbrellas that, by their adjacent placement, create a long canopy now washed with red and green floodlights. The handsome interior space is alive as well with paper luminary stars on every available hanging fixture. What a beautiful celebration of this festive season.
Executive chef Jeremy Duclut’s menu springs from French stalwarts like onion soup, escargot and steak frites, but also reflects the American cultural mosaic’s mashup with Gulf Coast bounty. The menu isn’t large, but it includes everything from grouper tacos to curried lentils to tortellini carbonara. And there’s also a series of plats du jour from snow crabs to lamb chops. Much like the dinner menu, the wine list is limited but carefully conceived. The wines by the glass include both new world and old world selections and food-friendly varietals/styles like Riesling and rosé that often go missing in lists this size; more restaurants should take note.
My first taste is their traditional French onion soup with a Gruyere gratinée. Unfortunately, the crouton underneath is actually in pieces and ends up a gloppy mess in the generic lukewarm broth even though the ramekin is hot-hot-hot. Odd. The lightly dressed baby spinach salad is lovely. Earthy roasted beets, candied walnuts, crumbled goat cheese, and fresh strawberries combine with the greens in a lively mix of flavors and textures.
Parmesan-crusted baked Brie with caramelized apples comes with crostini that are actually small, lightly toasted soft white Pullman loaf slices. Despite the lack of crispness, it’s okay with the dish, which is more accurately about the apples than the cheese. The large chunks of fruit are sweet and soft with little caramelization and topped with very thin slices of Brie and no Parmesan crust in sight. That said, there’s plenty of flavor to go around.
The meaty, but flaky, herb-crusted trigger fish features a light nouvelle cuisine sauce vierge of olive oil, lemon juice, chopped tomato and basil. Unfortunately, the fish arrives lukewarm. The prime pork strip steak au poivre is warmer and full of peppery flavor, but cooked longer than is optimal for this fine piece of prime pork.
The mixed grill includes tender duck confit and a huge, juicy chunk of spicy andouille sausage. But a small beefsteak with beautiful grill marks, and two ribs from a rack of lamb are, sadly, also cooked well beyond the medium rare that was ordered and they’re served in an odd red wine sauce that lacks acidity and tastes more like something from an envelope that does the meat no favors.
The accompanying starches and vegetables reflect attention to detail and are uniformly appetizing, from the creamy goat cheese polenta to the ratatouille, which avoids the pitfalls of being too herbal or being cooked into goo. Veggies retain their shape and the herbs, rather than being overwhelmed, complement flavors.
If you've ever watched 3-star chef Gordon Ramsay's popular cooking show Hell's Kitchen, you know that a whole team of line chefs is responsible for assuring that your ticket comes to the table cooked to order, hot and properly garnished. Unfortunately, on my visit to Cassis, someone in the kitchen was asleep on his or her feet; too many dishes escaped the kitchen lukewarm or overcooked on this visit.
A major focus of the dessert menu is a series of parfait-like ice cream specialties. The full spectrum of individual sorbet and ice cream flavors from blood orange to rum raisin (or even Cassis) are available at the adjacent Cassis bakery where pastry chef Daniel Delort presents a wide range of beautiful pastries and cakes not on the menu.
The crème brûlée is a mixed bag. It presents beautifully, in a fluted white porcelain oval with dark caramelized sugar and a beautiful fresh berry garnish. The thick cracklingly crisp crust is as perfect as any crème brûlée I can remember. That’s why the Tahitian vanilla bean custard underneath is so maddeningly disappointing; it has zero flavor. The custard is creamy enough but it is neither sweet nor vanilla. I kept going back to the wonderful glass-like topping, only to return to the custard thinking that surely I must be mistaken.
Sadly, it seems that the sugar and vanilla bean ran off and got hitched in another dessert.
I’m happy to report that the chocolate croissant bread pudding is simply delicious and delivers exactly what it promises, but it too could be warmer. The accompanying maple walnut ice cream is full of flavor, but competes rather than complements. Perhaps Cassis should try a simple, rich vanilla — that is, after the sugar and the bean return to the kitchen from their honeymoon elsewhere.
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