Complicated Dining

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

SAFFRON RESTAURANT AND LOUNGE
123 N. 3rd Street, Minneapolis
612.746.5533
www.saffronmpls.com

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.

"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.

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.

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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