Saffron reboots for the Target Field crowd

Middle Eastern mainstays remain on the menu

Saffron reboots for the Target Field crowd
Alma Guzman
Forget peanuts and Cracker Jack: Try the watermelon and heirloom tomato salad. Take the tour!

Recently, I ate two terrific dishes. The first was a disk of foie gras, covered with a caramelized-sugar crust, like a tiny crème brûlée with a savory, livery tang. It was plated with a smudge of bitter orange jam and two date-almond briouat pastries. The dish was complex, delightful, and something of a tease—an appetizer that might have passed for dessert.

The second was not so much a dish as a brown paper sack, filled with crisp, blond, house-made potato chips, sliced thin as butterfly wings. The chips were served with yogurt that was sprinkled with the spice blend za'tar—the Mideast's version of sour-cream-and-onion dip.

I finished a bite of the foie gras and then reached for a potato chip. Surprisingly, I was eating these two dishes at the same restaurant...as I awaited the arrival of duck tagine.

Octopus is a big seller at Saffron
Alma Guzman for City Pages
Octopus is a big seller at Saffron

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Saffron Restaurant and Lounge
123 N. Third St., Minneapolis; 612.746.5533; www.saffronmpls.com; appetizers $5-$14; entrées $18-$29

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On the occasion of its fifth anniversary, this establishment, Saffron Restaurant and Lounge, shut down for 10 days to reboot. To nonregulars, its Warehouse District digs won't look too different: It still has the same high ceilings, exposed brick, and pretty windows. But the paint is fresh, and there's an oversized booth tucked into one corner. Most significantly, the white tablecloths are gone.

Much has changed during the restaurant's relatively brief tenure. Recession-conscious diners have shifted away from formality and toward flexibility. A 40,000-fan-capacity ballpark opened just a few blocks down the street. The new Saffron wants diners to know they won't be underdressed in a jersey and ball cap.

Saffron's chef and co-owner, Sameh Wadi, opened Saffron at the ripe old age of 23, after a brief culinary career working for others, including Tim McKee at Solera. Needless to say, Wadi is an ambitious sort—last summer, he also launched his World Street Kitchen food truck. In the midst of transforming Saffron's space, Wadi decided to redo its menu as well.

Sameh and his brother/business partner, Saed, recently discovered the unpublished manuscript of a Palestinian cookbook written by their parents, which inspired Sameh to try to showcase lesser-known foods from his homeland and beyond. (The Wadis are Palestinian, but Sameh grew up in Kuwait and Jordan, among other places, before moving to the United States.) Saffron's original menu might have been characterized as contemporary American fine dining, as seen through a Middle Eastern lens—Wadi often took ingredients familiar to Americans and matched them with Mediterranean flavors. His new approach expands the kitchen's reach to places such as Spain, Turkey, Greece, Lebanon, and Algeria and includes dishes from the region that haven't yet found their way to the Twin Cities.

Sameh says Saed was initially doubtful his plan would succeed. "I showed my brother the new menu," Sameh recalls, "and he said, 'You're crazy! People are not going to eat this.'" But after years of serving Saffron's customers lamb brains—and having them become a house favorite—Sameh had cultivated a following among adventurous Twin Cities diners and earned their trust. He says the dishes his brother worried about—octopus "a la plancha," slow-cooked green beans, Turkish-style air-dried beef, whole fish—are now some of the restaurant's best sellers. Not that the words "I told you so" would ever pass his lips.

The new menu has fewer dishes like the foie gras and more like the potato chips: It feels less fussy, less precious, and more sharable. Take, for example, the fresh chickpeas, a street-vendor nibble from Wadi's childhood that's nearly impossible to find in the United States. My server helpfully explained that they might be eaten like edamame (they look like a plumper, squat version of the Japanese snack) by licking the salt and the lemon off the pod and then popping the bean into your mouth. The fresh beans taste greener than their canned or dried counterparts, a bit like a soy or fava bean. "It's a completely different flavor and texture," Wadi says. "It's totally sexy. And yes, I did say 'sexy' about a chickpea, and I'm not ashamed of it."

Bastirma, or Turkish-style air-dried beef, is another new menu item that's rarely seen in America. ("Sourcing some of these things was a total nightmare," Wadi says. He ended up having to make it himself.) Curing bastirma is a two-week process, Wadi explains. A strip loin is covered in salt and spices, like pastrami, and aged. The thin-sliced meat looks like prosciutto, but it's less sharp and salty than European-style cured hams. It has a mellow, pleasant funkiness that Wadi attributes to the use of fenugreek—a spice that made a memorable first impression on him. "The first time I had it, I said, 'This tastes like armpit.'"

Many of Saffron's simple Middle Eastern mainstays have remained on the menu. (Of the fried cauliflower, Wadi remarks, "I tried to take it off last year and I had death threats.") There's hummus, heavy on the lemon and doused with olive oil, and a platter of spreads: a mild, yellow lentil, smoky eggplant baba ghanoush, and feta cheese blended with pickled hot peppers. Among these, the fried beef kubbeh is king (the appetizer is pronounced ku-beh, and it's a variant of the Lebanese kibbeh). The crisp-crusted, spicy meatballs are made from Wadi's mother's recipe, which involves a laborious process of grinding and shaping the beef and preparing its bulgur shell. For the first year Saffron was open, Mom came in to the restaurant once a week to prepare the dish herself.

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3 comments
marensweb
marensweb

Are you another one she was with? From what time to what time? I'm trying to put pieces together.

Cheatersneverwin
Cheatersneverwin

Maren Thorstenson sleeps around and is a liar.....just sayin'

Niftypr
Niftypr

I love Saffron and Sameh is an incredible Chef. Keep up the great work!

 
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