Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Saffron: get your ass down there!

Yesterday was a balls-to-the-wall eating extravaganza, kicking off at the Sibley Plaza strip mall gem Queen of Sheba and finishing with Saffron Restaurant and Lounge. Queen of Sheba will get their well-deserved shout out in another post... for now let's focus on Saffron, shall we?

Having opened in February, highly favorable reviews can be found from the Strib and MSP Mag, as well as in a growing thread on the Mpls Chowhound board. I agree with the lot: practically everything coming out of Saffron's kitchen vibrates with freshness, and the execution last night, from a cook's perspective, was mostly flawless. The unique thing about Saffron's food is its successful marriage of middle-eastern, north African and mediterranean influence. Recurrent are the flavors of harissa, mint, cumin, cinnamon, cilantro, parsley, za'tar, sumac and, of course, olive oil. At the same time, western luxe favorites such as ahi tuna and foie gras are enlivened by astringent, herbal tabbouleh and a dab of subtle rose jam, respectively. I had the luck to try almost everything on the menu-- a staggering 25 or so dishes which the four of us, in attack formation, took on 3 items at a time (we told them to just keep sending food until we could handle no more). A few favorites: deviled eggs topped with high-quality olive oil tuna, capers and a few blades of tarragon; rich and earthy house-made mirqaz (merguez) sausage, on a tangle of sweet and tender roasted red pepper confit; sugary date slivers with creamy, neutral goat cheese and fresh thyme; a special not-on-the-menu plate of beef carpaccio topped with spicy, zesty cumin-laced beef tartare, crisp fried chickpeas and brown butter; the delicate vegetable bisteeya which in my mind recalled baklava with its walnuts, almonds and crisp phyllo dusted with cinnamon powdered sugar. There were very few disappointments. The scallops had sounded promising, but the saffron sabayon was thin and lacking in flavor. The main course items we tried were well executed, but inherently less exciting than many of the small plate items-- yet at this point we were also getting to be quite stuffed, which consequently altered our perception. I had been thrilled at the thought of the house made lamb bacon accompanying the braised lamb shoulder, but in fact it had been simmered with the chickpeas and had therefore all but dissolved as far as we could tell. But apparently at lunch they offer a BLT featuring it in its rightful, unadulterated salty, lamb-y glory (at least, that's how I imagine it). Desserts (admittedly overkill for us at this point) were really nothing special, but not bad. A turkish coffee and chocolate ice cream was very nice and not too sweet, as was an intense cherry sorbet. Happily, Saffron also pulls a good espresso... I'm always so disappointed when a meal ends with bitter, watery coffee. Monday through Wednesday the already affordable wine is 1/2 price, and we drank a nice chablis followed by a tasty Oregon pinot noir.

Even after the dining room eventually filled completely, service thoughout the evening was attentive, efficient, friendly and very well-informed (despite just a few times when mint was verbally identified as basil, thyme as rosemary and other such finicky things that only stickler cooks --such as yours truly-- give a damn about). Our many courses came at a steady and appropriate pace, water and wine were generally refilled frequently, plates were cleared very quickly, and our server thoughtfully replaced our silverware and small tasting plates every couple of courses as they got all saucy.

I really do hope to see Saffron continue its success beyond a couple-month wave of popularity from favorable reviews. As I and many others have already expounded upon, the Minneapolis fine dining scene is a fickle mistress these days. So get out there, spend that extra 60 bucks or even 20 bucks burning a hole in your pocket, or else we'll be screwed with nothing but goddamned Wolfgang's worthless pan-asian blah blah blaaaah!

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