Complicated Dining

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

Toward the end of my visits to Saffron, I began to wonder if there was some basic problem with my palate and this food. Was there some spice in the ras al hanout that I just didn't like? Orris root, perhaps? As a restaurant critic I always say I like everything, but truth be told, there are a few things I'm not that wild about, like tarragon. And while I've had a few quiches in my day worth eating, I find the vast majority sulfurous and overcooked. Julia Child herself could rematerialize in my kitchen and offer to make me a tarragon quiche, and I would say, "You know what? I'm just not that hungry. You go back to your eternal rest, and I'll make some toast later. No biggie."

I took my strange dilemma right to the young chef in question, Sameh Wadi. "In my head, I see that you're an up-and-coming local talent who I should be wild about," I told him. "And while there are some real gems on your menu, I'm finding the vast majority of it—how can I say this? Well, I'll just say it. I just don't like it. And I can't figure out why."

"I've actually heard that before," he told me. "Mostly from my family." So, in case you were thinking I couldn't make this review any more complicated, this poor and, at least on this page, beleaguered young chef (he turned all of 24 a few weeks ago) now has a critic and his family in agreement that there's something odd about his food. Surely that is a hell no one on earth has ever before suffered.

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

Map

Saffron Restaurant & Lounge

123 N. 3rd St.
Minneapolis, MN 55401

Category: Restaurant > Middle Eastern

Region: Minneapolis (Downtown)

I asked Wadi about his family's thoughts on food; after all, he credits his mother with his love of cooking, and his father, now deceased, was one of the founders of Minneapolis's most beloved Middle Eastern grocery and quick-serve, Holy Land. "At Saffron, we just stretch the envelope so much here," Wadi told me. "A lot of the time, the Middle Eastern mind just can't stretch that far. Not having rice on the menu, that drives my family crazy. Not having pita bread with every course drives them crazy. But I'm trying as hard as I can to elevate flavors to this century and to the American palate. A lot of the things I do are Minnesota meets the Middle East. If I didn't have steak and potatoes on my menu I'd lose a lot of clientele. If I was cooking just for myself there'd be a lot more offal and weird ingredients that don't suit the American palate right now."

Like the lamb brains? I asked. Yes, he said. The lamb brains ($5) are, to my thinking, one of the strongest offerings on Saffron's menu, partly because it is beautifully simple, just a lightly breaded brain, fried, served with a half-dozen confit cherry tomatoes rendered sweet and jammy through their long, slow cooking. The brains are creamy, pale, sweet, and ethereal, and the tomatoes accent that creaminess wonderfully.

After talking to Wadi and eating nearly everything on his menu, I think Saffron would be more to my liking if he only made the things that he liked or that his family liked, and kept far away from white-tablecloth restaurant standard-bearers like blue crabs, rare duck breasts, and any and all dishes like the garganelli pasta with escargot (it was weirdly unseasoned) and halibut with (and pummeled by) curried vegetables and cilantro. It's hard to fault a young chef for wanting to succeed in the big leagues of fine dining—after all, fine-dining chefs get all the glory, and few chefs have ever been called a "genius" on a magazine cover for cooking their mother's recipes.

Yet there may be another path. The one almost-fusion category in which Saffron truly excels is its happy-hour menu. For this, available from 4:00 to 6:00 p.m. weekdays and from 11:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays, Wadi has assembled a fiercely agile, potently flavored, entirely delicious little menu of $3.50 treats. Two tiny beef burgers made with charmoula (a garlic, lemon, and spice mixture) are perky and potent, their spice perfectly tamed by a spoonful of tangy cucumber-yogurt sauce and a bit of pickled onion. Kofta meatballs have a gamy intensity but are ideally tender. The tomato sauce they're set in has a cinnamon-sweet edge, and they're nothing short of devourable. (These beauties sometimes appear on the regular menu in the selection of four traditional mezze, for $12.) That smoky lamb BLT I mentioned also appears only on this happy-hour menu. Order it with a cup of crisp French fries paired with a bold and tart cup of feta cheese fondue, and you've got something meaningful, different, and worthwhile to stick next to your beer after a long night—which actually is something they put people on magazine covers for, sometimes.

If you want to find the very best face of Saffron, one that I labored mightily to discover, I suggest you hit one of these happy hours, or at least just sit at the bar and stick to the most traditional of the mezze (tiny, two-bite appetizers) and small plates (regular-size appetizers). At the bar you'll experience the best the place has to offer, like the chic, brick-red, modern Casbah-nightclub decor; the agile, attentive servers; the thoughtful wine list; and the creative cocktails (the fiery Bloody Mary made with harissa and served in a cumin-and-salt-crusted glass is a good one, $6). And if you want to know what all the chefs are buzzing about, what's a significant development in Minnesota cookery in 2007, and what's difficult and fascinating about a chef under 25 getting his own restaurant, you'll want that bar seat.

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