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.
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Sameh and his brother/business partner, Saed, recently discovered the unpublished manuscript of a Palestinian cookbook written by their parents, which inspired Sameh to try to showcase lesser-known foods from his homeland and beyond.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.
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.
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."