Chef and co-owner Sameh Wadi says the reboot started with a desire to replace the restaurant's big, bulky tables and strip off the white cloths. Once that change was made, Wadi and his brother/co-owner Saed decided that they might as well go a little deeper and look at every single aspect of the restaurant that has bothered them and their guests over the years.
The Hot Dish talked with Sameh Wadi to learn more about the makeover:[jump]
Saffron's dining room has some new paint, light fixtures, and banquette seating to make the space feel casual enough that a guy in a ball cap and a Twins jersey doesn't have to feel under-dressed, Wadi explains. Even with it's chic bar and lounge area, Saffron has always felt a little formal for drop-ins, so the subtle shift in mood should make diners realize that they don't just have to come to the restaurant for a "fancy" dinner.
The menu underwent a drastic makeover, with 80 to 90 percent new dishes. The menu tips a little heavier to small-portioned, inexpensive mezze, salads, and sides and about half of the large plate selection is made up of three types of tagines (duck leg, lamb shank, seafood). "The approach is still the same, but we broadened our horizons," Wadi says.
Wadi and his brother recently found an old, unpublished cookbook their parents had worked on decades ago, so he decided to refresh his restaurant by resurrecting many of his family's old-school Middle Eastern recipes. But he's also stretching across the Mediterranean to incorporate more Spanish, Moroccan, and Turkish flavors. Wadi says the Twin Cities are short on Eastern Mediterranean cuisine (agreed!) and promises many traditional dishes that we've never seen. Like what?
How about the whole roasted branzini (European seabass) prepared in the style of a Greek taverna, with little more than lemon, olive oil, herbs, and salt--accompanied by crispy fried grape leaves? Or a Turkish-style air dried beef called bastirma?
"Sourcing come of these things was a total nightmare," Wadi says, joking that while local importers are able to access all sorts of Western European charcuterie (prosciutto from hogs that have practically been fed truffles and foie gras and whatnot) they couldn't get him bastirma. "I ended up having to make my own," he says.
Getting fresh chickpeas was another major challenge. Wadi says he tried a dozen local farmers before finding a small California farm that grows chickpeas year round. "It took me probably 2-3 weeks to find out where to get them, and 4 minutes to show everybody how to cook them," he says.
It's nice to see more fresh beans on local menus--here's to hoping it becomes a new ingredient trend. Americans have consistently overlooked legumes and most are unaware how the canning and drying processes affect the beans' flavor and texture.
Wadi and staff are charring the fresh chickpeas in a super hot pan and serving them with a little lemon juice and sea salt so people can eat them right out of their shells. "It's totally sexy. And yes, I did just say "sexy" about a chickpea and I'm not ashamed of it."