Location: 900 Western Ave., North Side. 412-586-7794
Hours: Tue.-Thu. 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sunday brunch 11 a.m.-2 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers, salads $4-10; entrees $12-20
Fare: Homemade gourmet
Atmosphere: Victorian moderne
Liquor: Full bar
The cocktail revival of the last decade gave us some good places to get soused in style, but if the mixologists on premises were the cream of the crop, unfortunately, the same could all too seldom be said about the chefs. As a result, we found ourselves slinging back Mad Men-vintage potables to wash down either retro dishes that scored higher on irony than taste, or else tired chip-and-dip combinations that were better left back in the era of ice beer.
Cassis, in the North Side's Western Avenue business district, announces its focus with a nod to Crème de Cassis, the black-currant liqueur that's the basis of the kir royale cocktail. But even though the owner, Dianne Porter, is a bartending veteran, she's committed to a menu that's worth your while even if you're drinking nothing fancier than tap water.
On the simpler side, there's grilled cheese with tomato and bacon or, for all you Elvis fans out there, peanut butter and bacon. (Although we're not sure what the King would have thought of serving his legendary favorite on rye bread). Or you can set your sights on something more elegant, such as smoked trout spread with sliced apples, or goat cheese with spiced bell pepper dressing and baguette.
The restaurant itself features a dusky, olive- and eggplant-hued dining room. Along one side are long, upholstered banquettes and a gas fireplace. Up a couple steps is an adjoining room -- a sleek bar with the obligatory flat-screen TV (although on a Friday night it was tuned to a dance competition, not sports). Porter's bartending experience shows in an "A to Z" drink menu of classic and creative cocktails. After we enjoyed ours at the bar, we switched to the screen-free dining room to eat.
The menu is divided into starters, salads, sandwiches and entrees -- but with only four dishes in the latter category, dining at Cassis is really more of a small-plates experience. By the time we satisfied our curiosity about the "smaller" side of the menu, we had no room left for filet of grouper, steak or linguine entrees.
Instead, we sampled the galette and dumplings of the day. The dumplings were filled with taco meat, a surprising stroke of genius. The ground beef was seasoned well but not too aggressively; the wrappers were partly crisped to evoke taco shells; and the pico de gallo for dipping was pushed toward onion, lime and herbs to reduce the prominence of pale winter tomatoes. We both liked the galette, but our impressions began to diverge at its pastry crust: Angelique found it turned unpleasantly sludgy in her mouth, while Jason enjoyed the rich butteriness beneath its crusty top. The vegetables themselves had a flavorful intensity from roasting, an excellent way to handle vegetables in late winter without resorting to roots and squashes again.
Goat cheese with spiced bell pepper dressing and toasted pine nuts was an almost autumnal combination of tangy chevre, nutty pignoli and frankly vegetal peppers. The serving looked sparing but packed a flavor big enough to dress several rounds of toasted baguette.
A salad of dandelion greens, green onion, hard-boiled egg and bacon was a real greens-lovers salad, with the bitter flavor of the dandelions predominating. The hot bacon vinaigrette was room-temperature, which meant that the greens didn't get that slightly wilted effect that makes the best warm bacon salads so rewarding. This wasn't the kitchen's only misstep. Some of the meatballs in the banh mi -- Vietnamese hoagie -- were almost inedibly dry, as if accidentally reheated without any sauce. But others were richly seasoned, spicy, and excellent on a baguette with creamy Sriracha mayonnaise and pickled vegetables.
Ultimately, the hot beef sandwich illustrated the duality of Cassis' approach. On the one hand, shredded beef with onions on a roll is lunch-cart fare in many cities; on the other hand, we don't think most of those carts are braising the beef in wine and slicing the onions so finely that they melt into the meat. Nor are they serving the sandwich on a baguette, with its signature contrast of crispy crust and fluffy interior. Whether you want to emphasize its down-to-earth essence or its elevated approach, this was a fine sandwich, elevated further by the little cake of scalloped potatoes served alongside, a pleasant upgrade from even homemade chips or truffled fries.
At the end of the meal, our opinions of Cassis split more or less along these lines as well. While Jason appreciated the more sophisticated dishes, Cassis played most strongly to his love of a good, hearty sandwich. Angelique enjoyed Cassis' creative yet not ostentatious approach to small plates, wishing only that the preparations were as consistently refined as the concepts.