Complicated Dining

Saffron, the most buzzed-about Middle Eastern restaurant in the history of Minnesota, offers unique pleasures if you know how to order

123 N. 3rd Street, Minneapolis

Why haven't I reviewed Saffron? That question has annoyed a portion of Minnesota food cognoscenti ever since young chef Sameh Wadi, formerly a cook at Solera, opened the Middle Eastern fusion restaurant last February with his brother Saed in the old Cafe Solo space in downtown Minneapolis.

At first, I think it was mostly chefs and other restaurant folks who were irked.

Chef Sameh Wadi: "We just stretch the envelope so much here"
Alma Guzman
Chef Sameh Wadi: "We just stretch the envelope so much here"

Location Info


Saffron Restaurant & Lounge

123 N. 3rd St.
Minneapolis, MN 55401

Category: Restaurant > Middle Eastern

Region: Minneapolis (Downtown)

"The place is just fantastic. No one is doing anything like it," Bill Summerville, sommelier at La Belle Vie, told me.

"Sameh is a real smart guy. It's not a part of the Mediterranean most people are interested in cooking, but the flavors, I just love the flavors he's working with," said Tim McKee, one of Minneapolis's greatest chefs, who cooks at and co-owns both La Belle Vie and Solera, where he discovered and nurtured Sameh Wadi.

It wasn't just the La Belle Vie crew raving about Saffron. It seemed there wasn't a chef in town who wasn't buzzing about the place. Soon enough, loyal City Pages readers became annoyed with my Saffron silence. Andy and Sonja wrote to tell me that the lamb koftas were "heavenly" and that the chef even made a friend of theirs an off-the-menu "chicken maqloube that was out-of-this-world good." Lev wrote to scold me for not reviewing Saffron and thereby neglecting my "duty to cookery."

Now, it's not like I haven't been to Saffron. I went soon after it opened. I went in the spring, when reviews in the major publications started rolling out. I went in the summer, when the burst of new customers driven by the reviews had passed. I've been to Saffron plenty. The sad fact is that I have never had a meal there I can wholeheartedly say I liked, and I was avoiding writing about it because I thought I was giving them time to get on their feet. Nearly a year later, I've had to conclude that the magical day I've been waiting for—namely, the day I'd feel that Saffron was "ready" to review—is never going to come, and that the fault may well be mine.

I mean, do you ever think about celebrity divorces? I don't, really, but while I was tearing my hair out at Saffron one night wondering why I couldn't get on board with a restaurant that everyone agrees is groundbreaking and delicious, I remembered something I'd heard a standup comic say once. "Women," he said (more or less, because I'm wildly paraphrasing here), "they'll all drive you crazy. Everyone thinks, 'My wife isn't pretty enough, isn't rich enough, isn't fun enough.' But you have to remember, that's what Sean Penn thought about Madonna." And, you know, it's also what a whole passel of women thought about Cary Grant. There's no accounting for taste. Because after all, there's no getting around the issue of personal taste when you're a restaurant critic. As Gourmet's editor-in-chief Ruth Reichl has put it, and again I paraphrase: How could restaurant criticism not be personal? We're talking about something that was in my mouth.

So, what exactly don't I like about Saffron's food? I do like some of it. I think the most traditional Palestinian dishes on the menu are wonderful, including the tangy house-made yogurt cheese, which is sometimes served plainly, garnished with sumac, dried mint, and Moroccan olive oil ($5), and sometimes served on rounds of roasted beets ($5.50). I think the house-made merguez sausages ($9.50) are fabulous, even a dish of the year. Each supremely tender, extravagantly spiced, two-bite-sized link practically vibrates off the plate with exuberant flavor. Another gem? The happy-hour-only lamb-bacon mini-BLT ($3.50), a funky, surprising little wonder with house-cured, house-smoked lamb belly served on squares of toast with tomato jam, arugula, and a sort of tarragon mayonnaise, all of which combine to make a smoky, deep, muttony, profoundly echoing little bite of barn-and-wine, not unlike a great Chateauneuf-du-Pape.

Yet, besides these little gems, I never found a single entree I liked. I think the restaurant's signature lamb shoulder with lamb bacon, the spicy red chili-pepper sauce harissa, and chickpeas ($27) is woefully heavy, greasy, and over-spiced. Every time I've had it I've longed for two lemons' worth of juice to squirt over it to cut the grease, and some kind of fresh herb to give it life.

The salmon and clam tagine ($25), with saffron, peppers, olives, fennel, and Yukon gold potatoes ($25), I find to be an indistinguishable mash of too many flavors, which go to war in your mouth and leave you collapsing with exhaustion. Saffron's duck, which I've had both chilled with a carrot salad ($22) and served hot with caramelized onions beside a goat cheese-medjool date tart ($24), is always, to my taste, spiced to oblivion. The spice crust, made of a traditional spice mix called ras al hanout, which the Saffron kitchen blends fresh from 22 different roots, leaves, and spices, leaves the duck so meaningless and untasteable that it could be anything—tofu, polenta, beef.

Other dishes at Saffron sat on their plates just taunting me with their obvious cooking skill and care. For instance, the blue crab salad ($8) is crabmeat tossed in a curry vinaigrette served mounded on a silky avocado salad. It is served on a long plate, with streamers of additional curry vinaigrette snaking in two directions, like festive banners blowing in the wind. Dotted around these pretty waves of vinaigrette are perfectly cut, jewel-bright segments of pithless citrus fruit, including lemons, oranges, and grapefruit. Looking at this crab salad you just know—you know—that someone is cooking their heart out back there, putting form to all kinds of skill and talent. Which makes it all the more heartbreaking that I hate this crab salad. To me it tastes acrid and bitter, the vinaigrette only drawing out the crab's stale, briny chemical notes and masking all of its sweet and fresh ones.

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