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Continued: Learning to love Saffron all over again

  • Article by: RICK NELSON , Star Tribune
  • Last update: September 22, 2011 - 11:38 AM

Everything a diner needs to know about Saffron Restaurant & Lounge can be summed up in a single dish. OK, three.

They're all tagines, and this trio of slow-cooked stews constitute a hefty percentage of my favorite meals of the year. Part of the fun of ordering a tagine -- particularly at this charismatic, one-of-a-kind restaurant -- is the dish's built-in flash of dinner theater.

"Get ready for your facial," said our server, as he lifted the pot's cone-shaped cover, a ta-dah moment that released a salutory cloud of intensely fragrant steam.

But their main allure is sheer, unadulterated deliciousness. One features fork-tender lamb shanks, the meat's heaviness leavened by harissa and preserved lemon, its garlicky broth brimming with spinach, caraway and toothy chickpeas. Another puts duck in the spotlight, nudged with garlic, ginger and olives for six hours until the meat falls off the bone, with hints of saffron and sweet raisins acting as a foil to the bird's inherent richness. A third is an ever-changing play on seafood; I'm still sighing at the thought of salmon, cool and plush in the center, braised in a shellfish-tomato broth dotted with entrancing chermoula accents and tender mussels.

First-rate comfort food, certainly, but chef Sameh Wadi's contemporary interpretation of the genre -- and his million-dollar nose for seasoning -- propel them far beyond home cooking. Don't tell my book club that I've moved on, but using pita bread to soak up every last drop of those complex, carefully nurtured broths has become my favorite new hobby.

A new focus

Tagines are just one key element in Wadi's savvy remake of his five-year-old Warehouse District restaurant. At this reboot, all traces of formality (and its roommate, Gold Card prices, not that Saffron has ever been particularly expensive) are gone, replaced by an emphasis on meant-to-be-shared plates sold at mostly affordable prices. Oh, and fun. Tons of it.

Another change: A broader culinary scope. In its first years, Wadi, a Palestinian who emigrated to the United States when he was 13, kept the kitchen's inspirational focus on the Middle East and North Africa. Now, he's plucking ideas from around the Mediterranean.

Starting in Greece, where unassuming tavernas became the source for another audaciously satisfying dish, a whole-roasted branzino (aka European sea bass). I'm a sucker for whole-fish preparations, and this one is no exception. Wadi removes most of the bones of this beautiful silvery creature and stuffs the cavity with a compound butter of black olives and lemon zest. After pulling it out of the oven, he finishes it with fruity olive oil, sea salt and a shower of crispy fried grape leaves. The firm white flesh has a gentle flavor, and the whole shebang, a paragon of simplicity, is a signature dish waiting to happen.

Wide-ranging flavors

It's hard to tell if his motivation stems from the runaway success of his food truck (Saffron's mobile sibling, World Street Kitchen, serves a worth-the-wait weekday lunch at 5th Street and Nicollet Mall), but this more casual cooking style suits Wadi's considerable skills, and his menu covers plenty of bases but never strays far from its roots.

There's the requisite talker -- heck, it ought to have its own Twitter handle -- in the form of pillowy, gently fried lamb brains. He's included an affectionate nod to his grandmother, a plate of green beans slow-cooked in tomatoes. High-tech techniques have their place, too. Sous vide cooking makes charred octopus feel almost like tuna, and vacuum compression converts watery cucumber (with the help of a little Hendricks gin) into a solid foundation for a stunner of a crab salad. Wadi's initial plans for art school were superseded by his passion for cooking, but in that stunner of a salad -- and in another, a color study pairing watermelon alongside tomatoes, sweet against acid -- it's plain to see where he's channeling his artistic impulses.

Yes, the goodness runs deep. It's easy to rattle off small-plate dazzlers -- fabulous fried cauliflower and its earthy turmeric bite, nutty farro prepared like risotto, superb hummus, grilled lamb-beef meatballs, edamame-esque fresh chickpeas -- before encountering a merely decent option. If there's a weakness, it's the desserts. The flavor profiles mimic their savory counterparts, but with the exception of an ultra-moist couscous-olive oil cake, and the well crafted ice creams and sorbets, they're a bit of a disappointment.

Another draw is Saed Wadi, the chef's older brother and business partner, who acts as host, working the dining room like a seasoned politician, with two notable exceptions: His warmth is sincere, and his good humor is unflagging.

The warehouse loft decor has been pleasantly buffed and shined, along the lines of those TV home makeover shows where skin-deep design miracles are performed while simultaneously contorting an equally slim budget. Now, Saffron has the kind of environment where Tuesday night drop-ins or Target Field ticketholders can feel comfortable while taking a crack at the younger Wadi's extraordinary riff on the BLT, embellished with a house-cured lamb belly and thick swipes of a saffron-scented tomato jam. Order it with a side of the divine potato chips.

I almost forgot: Do not miss the sweet corn soup. Wadi has a knack for zeroing in on an ingredient familiar to local diners -- in this case, the same Monticello, Minn., crop that's roasted at the State Fair -- and revealing its exotic side. Starting with a silky puréed corn stock, he adds chile-poached figs and CornNuts (yes, the pre-packaged junk food, scrounged from nearby convenience stores) for compare-and-contrast texture, and smoked paprika oil and garlic-laced house-made yogurt for a similarly clever play on flavors.

The results are astonishingly good, and, like that spectacular branzino, it's a showman's dish, which explains why the 27-year-old chef -- mature beyond his years -- was tapped to compete last year on the Food Network's "Iron Chef America" (he lost to perennial favorite Masaharu Morimoto, and he was robbed). Since the too-brief sweet corn season is already drawing to a conclusion, you'd better hurry in. Fast.

  • SAFFRON RESTAURANT & LOUNGE

    ★★★1/2

    Location: 123 N. 3rd St., Mpls., 612-746-5533, www.saffronmpls.com.

    Hours: 5-10 p.m. Mon.-Thu., 5-11 p.m. Fri.-Sat. Happy hour starts at 4 p.m. weekdays.

    Atmosphere: A bare-bones downtown loft space warmed by spice rack colors, large windows and quirky light fixtures.

    Service: A knowledgeable, accommodating and attentive crew.

    Sound level: Lively but not intrusive when full.

    Recommended dishes: Tagines, branzino, sweet corn soup, crab salad, meatballs, lamb brains, farro and zucchini, octopus "a la plancha," couscous-olive oil cake.

    Wine list: A thoughtful if modest selection, reasonably priced. Kudos to the bar's unique, spice-infused cocktails.

    Price range: Small plates $5-$12, larger plates $18-$29, desserts $7-$9.

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