The “virtual” restaurant will serve dishes similar to what you get at the chef’s critically acclaimed Southeast Asian brasserie, but only available for pick up or delivery. 

By Andy Wang
June 11, 2019
Antonio Diaz

There are nights when chef Bryant Ng makes a rice dish, packs it up like it’s going to be delivered, and then lets it sit for four or five hours before he eats it without reheating it. There are days when he opens his refrigerator in his San Gabriel Valley home, finds some noodles he cooked at his Santa Monica restaurant the day before, and then turns on his microwave.

This is the type of R&D that happens when one of L.A.’s best restaurants is getting ready to launch a “virtual” spinoff.

Ng’s Cassia will debut Cassia Rice & Noodle Kitchen, which will serve food via delivery apps like UberEats, Postmates, Doordash, Caviar, and ChowNow, on June 18. Cassia Rice & Noodle Kitchen (or RNK for short) will also be available for to-go orders. There will be dishes like minced-chicken lettuce cups, grilled barbecue-pork rice, shrimp-and-pork wonton noodle soup, Chinese-broccoli fried rice, a cold glass-noodle salad with kale and smoked tofu, and spicy dry noodles that can be topped with cumin wagyu beef. RNK will serve ground duck over rice because Ng wants dishes that are calibrated for delivery and he knows that ground meat travels well.

“You go to Japan and you have these ekiben, and all the ones that have ground meat in them are always the best and most consistent,” he says.

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RNK’s menu of appetizers, rice dishes, and noodle options will range from $8 to $16, which means a typical meal could be less than half of what it costs to eat dinner at Cassia. Ng says that “accessibility” is the primary reason that he and his wife/business partner Kim-Luu Ng wanted to create RNK. But even though the price point of RNK is much lower than that of Cassia (where many entrées cost more than $35), the sourcing of the ingredients and the care involved in making dishes will be equivalent.

Ng is using the same kitchen and the same wood-burning grill for both Cassia and RNK. The food will be prepared by the same staff, including chef de cuisine John Stenbakken and sous chef Eleanor Hurtt. Like Cassia, RNK is a partnership with Josh Loeb, Zoe Nathan, and Colby Goff of Rustic Canyon Family, the constantly evolving restaurant group that recently opened Milo SRO (a New York-style pizza place without any seating) and is working on this month’s debut of Jeremy Fox’s Birdie G’s.

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Ng is able to sell RNK’s food at prices that rival fast-casual chains because he’s put together a menu of dishes that are “easy for us to execute based on what we have already.” His chefs will still be cooking dishes to order for RNK.

“All they do is they see a ticket and then fire it,” Ng says. “So it’s exactly the same.”

Ng has figured out how to make things efficient by “cross-utilizing ingredients.” For example, the $20 Koda Farms chickpea curry with clay-oven bread that’s a starter at Cassia has turned into a hearty $12 rice bowl for RNK. Ng is adding potatoes, carrots, and greens to the curry and then putting it over jasmine rice. If you also want clay-oven scallion bread with scallion-garlic butter from RNK, you’ll be able to order some for $8. Instead of the $22 grilled pork-belly vermicelli at Cassia, RNK will have a similar $13 dish with grilled pork meatballs.

“Kim and I have always wanted to have a restaurant to serve not just the 1 percent,” Ng says. “We believe that good food and taking that care and good sourcing should be democratic. More people should be able to have this quality of food.”

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Cassia, of course, is a grand Southeast Asian brasserie with a chilled seafood bar, serious cocktails, and spectacular dishes like a $47 Vietnamese pot-au-feu and a $76 whole grilled lobster. The cost of doing business has only gotten higher, and the labor pool has only gotten tighter, since the restaurant opened in 2015. Ng has had to raise prices at Cassia, and he knows he’ll upset his customers if he keeps doing that. No matter how rich or progressive his guests are, no matter how much they understand that giving employees a living wage and healthcare is important, there will probably come a point when people look at the menu and decide they don’t want to pay $10 more for a dish than they did a couple years ago.

“As our food costs and our costs in general go up, you can’t keep charging more and more,” Ng says. “There’s a ceiling. So what gives? Eventually, it’s going to catch up, and you won’t be profitable. Being profitable is not about lining your pockets with gold. You need to be profitable as a business, because otherwise you can’t even fix the oven when it breaks.”

Ng, who was named a Food & Wine Best New Chef in 2012 for his vibrant riffs on Singaporean and Vietnamese cooking at The Spice Table, has long been a chef who unintentionally jump-starts trends. Now, he’s trying to “see around the corner” as he evolves to survive in the restaurant business. He’s thought about how much he and Luu-Ng use food-delivery apps at home. He knows that it’s time to explore new business models. He says that quick-service brick-and-mortar restaurants could also be in his future.

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“It’s my livelihood,” says Ng, a chef who’s in the kitchen day after day and spends no time chasing TV deals or endorsement contracts. “I need to figure out how it all works. As an industry as a whole, we need to figure out where we’re going.”

Ng cooks some of L.A.’s most delicious food with precision and great skill, but that’s the easy part of his life. That’s when he can see everything clearly. Everything beyond the kitchen is murkier. But he knows that RNK can be an additional revenue stream without many added costs. He knows that Cassia’s menu is expensive for delivery and that RNK is priced in a way where customers can order it frequently. He knows that he has many advantages because most other restaurants don’t have resources like a tandoor for bread. He can serve higher-quality items than his competitors. He’ll also be cooking seasonally and frequently changing the produce he uses for RNK.

The point is, Bryant Ng is still making Bryant Ng food at RNK. He’s still cooking the kind of dishes that made Cassia L.A.’s consensus best new restaurant of 2015 and earned him three stars from The New York Times. RNK food is going to taste like Cassia food, even if you’re eating it on your sofa at 10 p.m. an hour after it got delivered.

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So much of Cassia is about creating dishes that will be consumed in the most optimal way, while everything is still hot and you’re in a buzzing dining room with your friends or family. So much of RNK is about knowing that people are going to be reheating this food the next morning, or taking it to work, or eating it alone when they’re stoned late at night. Once the food leaves RNK, Ng has no control over what happens next. All he can do is offer good food at a good value, so that’s what he’s focused on doing. He’s eating his dishes five hours later to make sure it will be fine if your rice bowl sits on your counter for an hour while you’re putting your kids to bed.

Starting on June 18, Cassia Rice & Noodle Kitchen will take delivery and to-go orders from 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. on Sundays through Thursdays. There are plans to add additional hours and days soon. This menu will not be available in Cassia’s dining room.

Ng will also continue to offer delivery of dishes from Cassia’s dinner menu. For now, that’s separate from RNK orders. He might put some of Cassia’s greatest hits on the RNK menu in the future.

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