A little over a year and a half ago, I fell in love with the LA dining scene. I spent a whirlwind-ish five days hitting up as many hot spots and "don't you dare miss this" locations as I could fit in. Time, my stomach, and my pocket book eventually got the better of me, but not before I experienced some of the freshest, inventive, and exciting food of my life.
With sincere apologies to the majority of the restaurants I enjoyed, Cassia is the place I still long for. I pine for it like a lost lover. Seriously, it calls to me. Cassia, owned and run by culinary couples Bryant and Kim Ng along with Josh Loeb and Zoe Nathan, is elevating Southeast Asian cuisine in its relatively newish Santa Monica location. My sister and I enjoyed fresh selections from their raw seafood bar, then shared fried cauliflower with fish sauce, charcuterie fried rice, and a grilled pork belly vermicelli (cold noodle salad). I wanted more - more sweet, more sour, more smoke from the meats grilling over hard wood.
Bon Appetit brought me back. The image of the Vietnamese-grilled steak salad in their latest issue was tempting enough - who isn't craving grilled meats and zingy fresh salad every single day right now? (Just me then?) But when I scrolled down through the recipe and discovered it was a dish Bryant Ng liked to make at home ... forget about it.
Bryant marinates ribeye in mustard powder, fish sauce and sugar, then grills it and serves it alongside a zippy watercress salad with cucumbers and mint leaves bathed in a spicy, sweet and pleasantly sour vinaigrette. I'm not new to Vietnamese dishes, and this one sounded vaguely familiar ... I think I remembered reading about this very salad quite recently.
I fired up my tablet and digitally flipped open my new Lemongrass, Ginger & Mint Vietnamese Cookbook (Linh Nguyen), hunting down the Pan-Seared Beef and Watercress Salad (Bo Tron Cai Xoong) recipe I'd dog-eared. Slightly more traditional with lemongrass, but definitely the starting point of Bryant's salad, which features fresh chiles, lime juice and crunchy peanuts scattered on top for texture.
Both recipes call for ribeye and watercress (a vegetable the French brought to Vietnam during the colonial period) and you can easily make substitutions if you'd like. I couldn't find a good piece of ribeye in town (seriously) so I picked up flank steak but kept with the traditional watercress which is slightly peppery. You could substitute it for any loose-leaf lettuce, or maybe butter or gem. Both recipes also call for pan-searing the meat, but I chose to use the grille, so I've adapted the recipe for that.
*Additionally, I'm a big proponent of marinating and brining meats overnight, so I've made that adaptation to the recipe. You can get away with marinating the meat for just an hour or two, but the longer you can let it hang out, the better flavor you're going to get out of your meat. Your call.
Vietnamese-Grilled Steak with Tangy Watercress Salad
Recipe adapted from Bon Appetit and Bryant Ng
2 teaspoons Chinese hot mustard powder or English mustard powder (such as Colman's)
2 teaspoons fish sauce
1 teaspoon demerara or light brown sugar, divided
Kosher salt, freshly ground pepper
1 - 1 1/2lbs flank steak (or steak of your choice)
1 red Thai chile, very thinly sliced
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 bunch watercress, tough stems trimmed (about 6 cups)
2 Persian cucumbers, or 1/2 English cucumber, thinly sliced
1/4 cup mint leaves
1/4 cup salted, dry-roasted peanuts, lightly crushed
Whisk the mustard powder, fish sauce, ½ tsp. demerara sugar, and 1 Tbsp. very hot water in a medium bowl until sugar is dissolved; season with salt and plenty of pepper. Add steak and marinade to a large ziplock bag and place in the refrigerator 8 hours or overnight.
Whisk chile, lime juice, 2 Tbsp. olive oil, and remaining ½ tsp. demerara sugar in a large bowl; set vinaigrette aside.
Prepare a grill for direct and indirect grilling - set two burners to high and leave the third off for your "indirect" cooking zone. Remove the steaks from the marinade, wiping the marinade off it it seems to be thickly adhering to the steak. Lightly brush the steak with oil. Grill on high for three to four minutes, then flip and grill for another three to four minutes until the meat registers 120-degress for medium rare, using the indirect cooking zone if you find your steak is getting a bit crispy on the outside but is still too rare for you internally. Transfer steak to a cutting board and let rest 5 minutes.
Meanwhile, add watercress, cucumbers, and mint leaves to bowl with reserved vinaigrette and toss to combine; season salad with salt and pepper. Top with peanuts and drizzle with olive oil.
Slice steak and serve with salad.
Die of complete and utter happiness.