Cassis on Western Avenue in Allegheny West offers tasty and unique appetizers and sandwiches. (Photo/Kelly Thomas)
When choosing a restaurant, customers often pick with their wallet in mind, rather than their stomach.
When this is the case, most of us searching for an inexpensive meal will unconsciously favor a sandwich shop or another Mom-and-Pop eatery with a cheap-looking awning and booths. Experience tells us that the nicer and cleaner the place, the larger the bill.
Allegheny West’s Cassis (pronounced KAH-SEES) breaks this rule and others with delightful ease. Housed in the elegant location where the 900 Club used to sit on the corner of Western Avenue and Galveston Street, the well-coifed establishment carries a unique menu with only six dishes priced above $10.
The fare is anything but standard, which should suit those customers not scared off by a menu that couldn’t care less about what the competition is offering.
Rather, Cassis is for those customers (you know who you are) with curious palettes.
“If you can eat the same thing everywhere, why would you go anywhere new?” shrugged Dianne Porter, proprietor and executive chef of the European-flavored restaurant. “I wanted to take familiar things, and tweak them.”
This becomes obvious when one notices the bacon on rye sandwich comes with peanut butter ($6).
For starters, I would recommend the smoked trout spread with with sliced apples and toasted baguette ($7). Beside the fish, the pâté is made of green onion, fresh dill and a hot sauce, and its subtle richness goes well with the sweet apple slices.
If that’s too fishy for you, try the black olive tapenade with slices of radish ($6). Like much of the menu, this glorified olive dip won me over with its subtle, salty sophistication.
If you’re a sucker for a salad with class, you’ll like the dandelion salad ($8), served with a hot bacon vinaigrette. I had the Belgian endive version of this and thought the sweet bacon drippings melded well with the tart flavor of the apple-cider vinaigrette.
The menu’s personality makes sense when you meet Porter. Cassis’s owner is one of those individuals whose self-esteem doesn’t seem to rely on peer approval.
She likes to tell the story of how as a young feminist, she marched into Union Railroad’s office in a tank top and asked for “a man’s job at a man’s wage.”
According to her, she was the company’s only female brakeman, or “brakeperson” she chuckles, at that time.
With 30 years in the restaurant industry, Porter has learned what and how she likes to cook. And the majority of dishes that Cassis serves has been honed at many a dinner party. “I used to be good for one a month, before I opened this place,” Porter said.
This gives the restaurant a homey feel, despite the upscale ambiance. In the back, Cassis offers a stylish bar, which she wants to turn into a relaxed, neighborhood joint.
“If you want to watch the hockey game, you have this side, and if you want to eat deconstructed cassoulet, you have that side,” Porter intoned.
Porter hopes the restaurant becomes a neighborhood fixture, and she has already begun adding more meat to the menu following customer suggestions.
For now, Cassis offers plenty of seafood dishes and gourmet sandwiches.
The roast turkey sandwich with smoked Gouda cheese is simple ($8), with a spiced cranberry sauce to round out the flavor. Made with thinly sliced turkey breast, the sandwich has a home-cooked, Thanksgiving dinner feel.
As a special (hint: Cassis has many), I was served shrimp and crab on roasted asparagus in a thick mayonnaise and Worchester sauce, with diced onions and bell peppers. In Cassis’s signature style, the separately cooked seafood and asparagus work unexpectedly well together.
For desert, I recommend the phyllo wrapped Granny Smith apples with Grand Marnier. Served warm, the paper thin dough melts in your mouth with a sugary zeal.
The chocolate silk pie, which isn’t on the menu, tastes about the same as something you might find in TGI Friday’s or Applebee’s. While not gourmet chef-level spectacular, if you’re craving a rich, smooth chocolate pie, it won’t disappoint.
Cassis’s liquor cabinet is full of higher end spirits, but if you have the chance, try the Kassi-tini: Crème de Cassis, vodka and white grape juice.