Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Saffron Restaurant and Lounge

The terrific new Saffron Restaurant and Lounge in the Minneapolis Warehouse District gives the lie to the old saying that East is East and West is West. The twain do meet at Saffron, in dishes that combine the flavors of the Middle East and North Africa with the presentation you might expect from a restaurant of the caliber of La Belle Vie or Solera. It turns out that chef-owner Sameh Wadi worked at both of those top restaurants before teaming up with brother Saed to open their own restaurant. Together, they have created an lushly romantic crystal and white linens dining experience that takes Middle Eastern cuisine to a level far beyond kebabs and tabbouli.

And the cultural distance isn't nearly as great as it first appears: one section of the Saffron menu is devoted to mezze, the small plates that are popular throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East, from Turkey and Greece to the Arab world, where they are a traditional accompaniment to ouzo, raku or other local spirits. Mezze are a close culinary cousin of tapas, the Spanish bar fare served at Solera.

The composition of the mezze sampler ($12) changes from day to day, but when we visited, it included green olives marinated in harissa, a hot red pepper paste from Morocco; a roasted beet salad topped with feta and drizzed with pomegranate essence; a simple salad of chickpeas blended with feta; kofta meatballs in a spicy tomato sauce; and the sublime Turkish eggplant dish, imam beyaldi, literally "the imam fainted." There are two theories about why the imam fainted. One school holds that was he overwhelmed by the sheer sensuous richness of the dish, while the other theorizes that he swooned thinking about much expensive olive oil his wife had poured into the dish.

Other highlights included a small plate of three large pan-seared scallops, served with morsels of deep-fried artichoke and clams atop a saffron cream sauce. I have become reluctant to order scallops, because they are so often either bitter or flavorless, but these had the signature sweetness of the very best.

The half-dozen entrees ranged from roast chicken with sumac, roasted onions and pine nuts ($19) to a beef strip loin with smoked potato gratin, oyster mushrooms and Taleggio fondue $29. I was delighted with my choice, a braised lamb shoulder, cooked until fork tender, served over a savory bed of chick peas ($27). The idea of a salmon "stew" had my companion on her guard, but the tagine of salmon and clams with roasted peppers, olives, fennel and saffron worked beautifully.
In lieu of baklava, the dessert menu offers less overpowering sweets, ranging from a simple banana tart with curry caramel and candied ginger ice cream, to a date walnut cake with cardamom-yogurt ice cream.
The wine list is helpfully sorted into three categories: "softer, fruity, lively"; "semi-dry, medium-bodied, lush"; and drier, bigger, bolder, intense," with most bottles priced between $30 and $40. We stayed with the wines by the glass, where we found a bargain-priced favorite: a Ken Forrester petite Pinotage, for $6 a glass.
Service was friendly and knowledgeable, well-versed on both food and wine. Saffron will celebrate its grand opening on Friday, April 27, with food and beverage specials, starting at 8 p.m., with live music, a belly dancer and a special three course, $33 dinner special.
Saffron Restaurant, 123 N. 3rd St., Minneapolis,. 612-746-5533.

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