At Saffron, you could hardly be bored

Exotic tastes blend in a savory, yet at times unusual, Indian fusion

Sunday Gourmet

October 19, 2003|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

Anyone who thinks Baltimore is a tradition-bound city should visit Saffron, a new restaurant just north of Mount Vernon Square. You might expect that it's just another Indian restaurant, given that owners Tony and Ann Chemmanoor also own the Bombay Grill group of restaurants in the area. But you'd be wrong.

True, Indian flavors and cooking techniques predominate in many dishes. Saffron's food is, for want of a better term, Indian fusion. What it's fusing with isn't always clear, but there are hints of Japanese, Chinese, Hawaiian, Southwestern, French and Italian -- if you consider fettuccine Italian. Plus there's more beef than I've ever seen on an Indian restaurant's menu. Note that you can eat quite reasonably here, but some of the dishes are pricey -- the foie gras and brown lentils ($18) and the caviar on blini (also $18), both appetizers, come to mind.

Think of the restaurant's name as suggestive rather than literal. The aromatic spice saffron is used in the food, of course, but the name is supposed to convey that the restaurant is as exotic and rare as the world's most expensive seasoning.

The interior design goes a long way toward backing that up. Saffron is located in the space where the Ruby Lounge used to be. Those who loved the urban chic interior of the former restaurant may be dismayed by the over-the-top redesign. Get over it. The ornate decor, by Rita St. Clair Associates, accurately reflects the cuisine.

The colors of the two-level dining room and lounge are now a paprika red, saffron yellow, turmeric orange and cobalt blue (the tiled martini bar). There are accents of copper. The formerly open kitchen is half hidden by wine racks. Fabric is everywhere, which keeps the noise level pleasantly muted: The walls are covered in hand-painted silk; the banquettes and chair seats are upholstered; and the windows have elaborate treatments. Oriental rugs are hung in undulating curves from the ceiling, flying-carpet style; they look great. Small art-glass fixtures light each table, and, of course, there are candles. Much is beaded, tasseled or fringed. A statue of the Indian deity Shiva the destroyer, four arms and all, dominates one wall. While you wait for your grapefruit martini, you can try to figure out whether Shiva's presence has any significance, or if it's just decor.

And with your grapefruit martini, be sure to order a plate of the chef's breads of the day. The evening we were there, the soft, warm naan came with three different fillings: quail and pumpkin, green oats and French lentils (never just oats and lentils at Saffron), and papaya and mango. Dip these lovely tidbits in a spicy green coriander sauce and you could die happy.

You could say that Saffron's food is boldly imaginative, or you could say it's merely weird. A case could be made for either, but most dishes live up to their billing. The menu is divided into categories like "The Beginning," "Liquid Spice," "Green Dreams," "Wings" and "Farm."

That last sounds a little plonky, doesn't it? What is meant is meat: three lamb dishes, a couple of beef, veal and pork. The poetic "Green Dreams" are salads, like arugula nestled in a crisp pappadam with a pumpkin seed vinaigrette and tiny eggplants cooked in a tandoor oven and stuffed with goat cheese. (This is one salad. You see what I mean by ornate.)

Savory little rice cakes, wrapped in leaves and steamed, are brightened by a bit of salsa flavored with curry leaf (not the source of commercial curry powder). Although every dish is based on an exotic spice -- and usually more than one -- Saffron's food is more subtle, less fiery than Indian food often is. Scallops in little cucumber "cups" are an exception. The heat of wasabi and pickled ginger at the heart of each will make your eyes water, but at the center of the plate is a life-saving bit of cooling sorbet. Sorbet is also brought between courses.

Some dishes don't sound Indian at all but can't disengage themselves from their roots. (This isn't necessarily a bad thing.) Take one of the best, the acorn squash stuffed with beef cubes, cheese and olives in a Riesling almond sauce. In spite of the acorn squash (peeled for easy eating), the tender beef, the black olives and the wine, the spicing of the creamy sauce couldn't have tasted more East Indian.

A boneless chicken breast stuffed with pistachios and black figs is another winner. The smooth sauce with undernotes of coconut, lemongrass and ginger makes the chicken rewarding in just about every way. But the dish is also a good illustration of Saffron's major flaw: Many of the entrees are too monochromatic, usually too brown. There are exceptions, like the lobster in its coral shell, but in general, more attention could be paid to the looks of the food. In this case, the chicken is served on a bed of couscous; even the peas studding it don't add much color.

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