Saffron (Minneapolis)


Saffron, which is located across the street from 112 Eatery in the Warehouse District of Minneapolis, opened in 2006. Some five years later, as far as I can tell from older reviews, it underwent some sort of an image makeover. I gather it had been a more formal restaurant in its original incarnation, with a more traditional menu structure. As of 2011/12 it apparently got rid of some of the formal trappings and the menu was redone to emphasize a large number of small plates for sharing and fewer larger main courses. I’m not able to say what the original version of the restaurant was like but I can say we quite enjoyed the food at our recent dinner at the current incarnation. The restaurant itself as a space left us a little cold (but more on that later).

Saffron: Chicken “Bisteeya”Before its makeover the restaurant seems to have been a more solidly North African and Middle Eastern affair; since then its offerings have become more broadly Mediterranean, with nods towards Greece (whole roasted branzini cooked in grape leaves), Italy (farro cooked a la risotto) and inevitability (they also offer a “BLT”). The restaurant is run by the Wadi brothers, Saed who runs the operations and Sameh who is the chef. Chef Wadi, who is fairly young for a Twin Cities veteran—I think he is only in his early-30s now—has received a fair bit of recognition in the last decade. He was nominated for a James Beard Rising Star award right after Saffron opened and has even appeared on the American version of Iron Chef (as to which of these is the more prestigious line on the cv I’ll let you decide). The brothers have also opened a second successful restaurant, World Street Kitchen, which started out as a food truck, and last year saw the publication of Chef Wadi’s cookbok, The New Mediterranean Table. It goes without saying that both restaurants and the chef are featured regularly in the local media’s breathless hyping of the Twin Cities restaurant scene.

Saffron: Lamb BrainI’m not sure what the original restaurant looked like but the current version is not very elegant, I’m afraid. It feels like a generic dining room (I could easily imagine a chain hotel’s continental breakfast being served in it) and the chairs and tables are both cheap looking and unattractively, and not particularly consistently clustered together—some parts of the room seem cramped, others feature more space. There’s a large bar and also a small loungey area with couches. Large street facing windows let in a lot of light, which is nice but which also highlights the dowdiness of the room. And at least at our dinner (on a Friday night) the crowd was not exactly identical to what you’d see across the street at 112 Eatery or at the Bachelor Farmer or Spoon and Stable in the general vicinity: some large family groups, quite a few older people, not the most fashionable crowd in general—even by lax Minnesotan standards. Fewer trendy people is not a bad thing, by any means, but the ambience did seem a bit out of whack with our final bill. They’re open late, by the way, but the dining room, which had been full when we got there at 8.30, was deserted by 9.45; and though a couple of people in shorts came in and sat on the couches, it was still very empty when we left after 10.

But first, the food. There were supposed to be four of us eating but our friends had to pull out at the last moment due to late-breaking strep throat in their home. As such I cannot offer a very broad survey of the current menu but we did manage to a decent amount of damage by ourselves. (By the way, I say “current menu” but this should not give you the impression that it changes very much: the dishes mentioned in the Rick Nelson review I linked to above from 2011 are almost all still available.)

What we ate (a slideshow follows):

We decided to get a bunch of the smaller plates and split one smaller tagine between the two of us (there are four tagine options, lamb, duck, vegetarian and seafood, and each is available in a smaller or larger size).

Small plates

  • Saffron: Middle Eastern Sausage (Na’anik)Charred Fresh Chickpeas with sea salt and lemon: These were very good with a nice balance between the nutty sweetness of the fresh, green chickpeas, the char and the acid, but felt more like a bar snack to accompany beer. This is on the “Weekly Features” menu—I’m not sure how that works; it seems like a regular feature.
  • Lamb Brain with olive oil stewed tomatoes, garlic and parsley: I was hoping for something a little gloopier but what showed up were two small crispy-fried lobes. The brains (or maybe sweetbreads) were done nicely but I almost preferred the stewed tomatoes.
  • Octopus “A La Plancha” cooked on a hot plate with toasted garlic, smoked paprika and sherry: It says “cooked on a hot plate” but the dish seems identical to the one Rick Nelson described in 2011 and he notes sous vide is deployed to tenderize the octopus. Whether that’s still true I don’t know, and I’m too lazy to call the restaurant to check, but I can tell you that this is a lovely bit of octopus—tender without approaching mushiness on the inside and beautifully crisped on the outside. And the paprika-sherry dressing was perfect with it.
  • Chicken “Bisteeya”, an aromatic saffron stewed chicken & almond pie wrapped in a phyllo pastry with cinnamon sugar: The classic Moroccan meat “pie”, it’s done really nicely here.
  • Middle Eastern Sausage (Na’anik), house made beef/lamb/pine nut sausage with lemon: We hadn’t originally ordered this but the lamb brain and octopus are fairly small portions and as we only had a split smaller tagine coming, we decided to get one more thing. The sausages themselves were quite nice (the insides were rather pink—I’m not sure if they are meant to be quite that pink but I liked it) but the sauce it sits in is really lemony; you’ll need the pita they serve alongside if you don’t want your teeth set on edge.

Main

  • Saffron: Lamb TagineLamb Tagine, with pistachio, fennel, artichokes, potatoes, mint and watercress: This was very good, even though the amount of lamb seems small relative to the size of the tagine once it’s opened. It’s not actually a small portion of lamb, I hasted to add: probably on par with how much you’d get for a regular entree at most places. The important part though is that the lamb was perfectly cooked as was everything else that was in there with it: the texture on the thinly sliced fennel and artichokes and potatoes was perfect. And the sauce was so good that we were disappointed to not have some couscous to pour it over—it’s served with more pita and you’d be a fool to not use it to mop up the sauce.

Dessert

  • Brown Butter Blackberry Tart, with coconut macaroon, persian lime curd, apricot ice cream and oatmeal granola: We split this between us and a good thing too, as it’s hard to imagine one person eating it by themselves. This was tasty but rather busy with lime curd, apricot ice cream, semifreddo, sesame crackers, and the tart itself topped with coconut macaroon.

All of this plus three glasses of wine and a cup of Turkish coffee (which the missus quite liked), tax and tip came to a little less than $150. And while this didn’t seem terribly out of whack with what you pay for food of similar or, in some cases, lesser quality in the Twin Cities (see Heirloom, for instance, where we encountered many technical missteps) it did seem a little high for the overall experience (see my comments above about the room). The food is very good, yes, conceived and executed at a high level, but for $75 per you might want your evening out to feel a little more special on the whole. Service itself was fine, and the food came out at a steady clip. (I should also add that while wines by the glass are never a very good deal the price and 500% markup on the fairly basic Malbec I had seemed a bit much.)

Still, I could see us returning within the year. I’d like to try the duck tagine too as well as more of the other small plates. And so, despite my reservations about the ambience, especially relative to the tariff, I would recommend Saffron.

2 thoughts on “Saffron (Minneapolis)

  1. Pricing here is similar to many other Minneapolis restaurants, I am thinking – out of whack. We were in Chicago recently, and the value proposition of their restaurants is higher than ours. Part of the issue, as I’ve pointed out, is the horrendous food and bev tax in Minneapolis (made even worse when dining within the “downtown zone”). More and more we’re heading to St. Paul for dinner, where the tax bill is negligible, compared to Mpls.

    Nice review. Reference to the local media hype is spot on, although probably not confined to just the TC area.

    Like

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