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).
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.
I’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).
- 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.
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.