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Saffron could be a winner if the spice is right

Saffron Authentic Indian Restaurant looks to find its footing in the Northland.



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The breads at Saffron are indeed tasty. My favorite might be the "special" version, filled with finely chopped paneer cheese, garlic and onion. It's a little greasier than traditional tandoori-baked concoctions, and the better for it. In contrast, the poori — big, golden balloons of deep-fried whole-wheat dough — is the least oily version of this bread I've tasted in the metro. It's absolutely delicious with a spoonful of Singh's sag paneer, a silky blend of creamed spinach and house-made cheese, and a dollop of Saffron's neon-green, slightly sweet mint chutney.

And a dollop might be all you get — Saffron is a little stingy with its condiments. I had to practically beg for a bit of onion chutney, and all the house chutneys and the shiny tamarind sauce are served in Lilliputian cups not much more voluminous than a jigger. For some reason, though, the cup of yogurt raita that I received one evening could have fed a family of 10.

So Singh and Kaur are on a learning curve with Saffron. But you can't help but want them to succeed. I hope that they stop frying the vegetable pakoras past the point of petrification, which seems easy enough. But they need not tinker with the vegetable samosas, which are glorious, the delicate pastry crust almost bursting with a smooth stuffing of seasoned potatoes and peas.

"Almost bursting" sums up the dinners at Saffron. Here, the greatest hits of the Northern Indian culinary repertoire are attractively presented and reasonably priced and generously portioned. The six combination dinners include bread, raita and a mildly spiced dal, the thick lentil stew that's delicious spooned over rice or a puffy wedge of naan.

The vegetable platter — served thali-style, as a palette of little dishes (in this case the creamy sag paneer, the tender cauliflower aloo gobi, and spiced garbanzo beans), with dal, bread and saffron-spiced basmati rice — is an appealing way to sample several meatless choices at once. As with another of the combination dinners (a sizzling, white-hot metal platter heaped with fiery, red tandoori-baked chicken and minced lamb sausages, chopped onions and peppers), it's a big meal with more than enough here for two patrons to share.

All of Saffron's dishes can be ordered with three degrees of spiciness: regular, medium and very. A better translation might be not spicy, kind of on the edge of spicy, and ow. If you'd like the lamb vindaloo to make your eyes water, then pick option three. Even the mildly spiced choices are flavorful, with the chicken tikka masala gorgeously buttery. The rogan josh, succulent lamb in a fragrant cinnamon and cardamom sauce, is outstanding. (There's a saffron-flavored ice cream, kulfi, for dessert, and it needs a little more saffron. Better is the much more intensely flavored mango version.)

The music I heard in the dining room on my visits ran from bouncy Bombay disco to Calcutta rap, a spectrum more adventurous than the cuisine. Among Singh and Kaur's challenges will be learning to narrow the gap between what's easy on the tongue and what's bland, and finding a spice level between "a little" and "too much." But when a place is named Saffron, and when it's run by people with good instincts, there's every reason to believe they'll conquer that learning curve and spice up the Northland.

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