Saffron reboots for the Target Field crowd

Middle Eastern mainstays remain on the menu

Among the restaurant's most elegant dishes are several newcomers, including a pretty watermelon and heirloom tomato salad garnished with feta, jalapeño, and basil, and a grilled leek and feta tart. But several old favorites have also remained, the white anchovies among them. The fish are marinated in harissa and sliced into delicate strips with flecks of radish and preserved lemon—like the foie gras dish, it's a flurry of contrasting and complementary flavors and textures. And of course there's the lamb brain. Its texture is oddly spongy and creamy; its flavor suggests seafood crossed with sweetbreads.

My favorite new entrée is the whole roasted branzini, or European sea bass. Wadi calls it a quintessential Greek taverna dish. Because it's stuffed with butter and a few flavoring agents—black olive, lemon, garlic, and herbs—it sort of self-bastes from within so the flesh stays ultra moist. The fish has a mild, neutral flavor that's brightened by olive oil and lemon. A garnish of fried grape leaves, parsley, and dill make crisp, staccato accents.

Saffron's tagines—Moroccan stews offered with seafood, lamb shank, or duck leg—are also great for sharing. The lamb and the duck versions are served in hefty, bone-on portions, and their meat is rich and tender, pleasantly gamy without being overly so. The lamb's ruddy harissa broth has both depth and warmth, and it's studded with chickpeas and spinach. Duck and potatoes absorb their sunny saffron sauce that would probably feel too heavy were it not lightened by sparks of sweetness, bitterness, and brine, in the form of plump sultana raisins, preserved lemon, and snappy, lightly cured Castelvetrano olives. So long as you can wrap your head around the eclectic nature of Saffron's menu, there's very little about the cooking to fault, though a few dishes I encountered were so heavily salted that when I returned home I immediately gulped down several glasses of water. Also, most of the entrées tend to be hearty, wintry fare, which may be why Saffron sometimes has its air conditioning cranked up to replicate Siberia. Several times, I shoved my icy fingertips into the only heat source I could find: the table's stack of warm pita bread. When I ordered the traditional Palestinian slow-cooked green beans, I wished Wadi had followed his mother's example and served the dish hot instead of cold.

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

Location Info


Saffron Restaurant & Lounge

123 N. 3rd St.
Minneapolis, MN 55401

Category: Restaurant > Middle Eastern

Region: Minneapolis (Downtown)


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

Thankfully, the restaurant's newly casual nature hasn't affected its service, which remains sharp, thorough, and enthusiastic. And Wadi's attention to detail extends to all the extras, including an interesting list of nonalcoholic beverages, craft cocktails, and wines, some of them from Lebanon.

For dessert, be sure to try the kunafa, a warm, sweet cheese pie topped with pistachios and phyllo shreds. The cheeses are baked to order, served in a cast-iron pan that's large enough to feed four, and doused with cardamom-saffron syrup at the table. It's an unusual combination, largely unseen in the Twin Cities, and a tradition Palestinians take very seriously. "Wars have been waged over kunafa," Wadi explains. "Weddings get called off over kunafa." The dish hits all the right notes: First there's the punch of fatty richness and piercing sweetness, then the delicate nuance of the nuts, cardamom, and saffron. The age-old dish seems surprisingly contemporary.

Wadi's relatives own northeast Minneapolis's Holy Land Deli, which has arguably made the largest impact in bringing Middle Eastern tastes to Minnesota. Wadi is building on that work by pushing the boundaries of Mediterranean cuisine, fluidly marrying disparate elements: East and West, high and low, old and new. (Wadi's lamb bacon "BLT," a diner classic adopted for Muslim dietary restrictions, may be the best reflection of his multicultural, Arab-American blend.) Not so long ago, Wadi notes, sushi was new to American palates. But nowadays, he marvels, kids are texting one another about going out for 'sush.' "It's my long-term goal for people to say, 'Let's go out for Med food,'" he says. "That's when I'll know I've arrived."

That day may not be far off. Wadi says the kunafa has already become Saffron's most-ordered dessert, a fact he attributes to local diners' willingness to try new things. "In that sense I'm really blessed," he says. "I get to put whatever I want on my menu. I get to be me."

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