Edward Kim has had success because he understands one simple truth. As a chef, you can indulge your over-the-top imagination. You can create rich and strange concoctions involving ingredients that shouldn't work together. You can fuse Asian with Tex-Mex and call it modern American. You can even mention fig syrup more than once on your menu. But at the end of the day, the food has to taste good.
I'm always amazed at the number of chefs who haven't quite caught on to this.
Kim is the local chef who a few years ago was a hit at Ixia. He left it to open his own restaurant, Soigne, in Locust Point, and then moved on to Mercado in Washington. Now he's back, working with Tony Chemmanoor at his Mount Vernon restaurant Saffron. Which, I might add, is no longer an Indian fusion restaurant now that Kim is on board.
In fact, I'm not sure why the name hasn't been changed, because everything else about the place is different. Gone are the opulent Indian fabrics, the undulating oriental rugs hung like flying carpets from the ceiling, the beading and tassels, the multi-limbed Hindu goddess. The place now looks more modern American, whatever that is, but not minimalist. There is still a lot of fabric, so this is one of the quieter small restaurants I've been to lately.
The menu has been even more drastically revised. The naan stuffed with quail and pumpkin is no more; instead there are sundried tomato-rosemary rolls and herbed olive oil for dipping. Indian flavors and techniques have been replaced by what is labeled modern American but is actually a cuisine unique to Kim.
It's part Asian, part European, a little Latino thrown in for good measure and -- if you consider the lobster bisque with shrimp and corn ravioli -- I guess there's even some regional American in the mix.
With a nod to the restaurant's Indian antecedents, Kim layers slices of salmon cured in rum, caviar and a spicy aioli on grilled naan. He can dazzle with a light, clean combination of mussels, chicken and chorizo and rice noodles in an enticing broth, or luxuriate in elevating velvety foie gras to die-happy status with scallops, duck confit, mango cooked until caramelized, rum and butter. He can even play with just a few ingredients, like the spring roll made of duck and phyllo in ginger-hoisin butter.
Believe it or not, Kim has reined in his imagination since he first started cooking in Baltimore restaurants. There are now some dishes on his menu that don't include a dozen ingredients, at least one of which you've never heard of. There is the spring roll, and also a boneless chicken breast with a light golden exterior and a citrusy undertone. The sauce is a suave lemon butter, which lets the accompanying summer salad of finely diced potatoes, mango and creme fraiche shine. Fresh spinach adds bright color and flavor.
On the other hand, sometimes more is more. Who could fault the juicy grilled pork with flavors of rum, brown sugar, mustard and maple, lying on a bed of apple, sausage, cannellini beans, crisp potatoes and a few green peas thrown in for color? A lot is going on, but the ingredients play well together.
Kim does fascinating things with seafood as well. His nod to the season is seared halibut with a sweet pea cream and a pea and corn risotto. A meaty hunk of tuna, ruby red and with gingery accents, is noteworthy not only because of the freshness of the fish but also because of Kim's exciting versions of pad thai and cucumber salad.
Saffron's desserts are respectable, but not worth saving room for when so much else is outstanding. There is the obligatory flourless chocolate cake, a rich cheesecake that comes in a ramekin instead of a crust, and a warm banana spring roll made with phyllo and drizzled with caramel sauce.
It's early days yet, but the service at Saffron was more chaotic than I would have expected. The first two wines by the glass I ordered weren't available, which was fine. What wasn't fine was that no one had told the waiter in advance. One of my friends was brought the wrong entree, so there was that awkward time where he sat with nothing in front of him and our dishes started to cool. And then our desserts took forever to arrive, which probably wasn't the waiter's fault but broke up the tempo of the meal.
Still, it's easier to overlook ragged service when everyone is friendly and seems eager to please. And prices, if anything, seem lower now than when Saffron was an Indian fusion restaurant. Welcome back, Edward Kim. Why don't you stay awhile this time?
FOOD **** (4 stars) SERVICE ** (2 stars)
ATMOSPHERE *** (3 stars)
Address: 802 N. Charles St., Mount Vernon
Hours: Open for dinner nightly
Prices: Appetizers, $6-$14; entrees, $16-$24.
RATINGS / / Outstanding: **** Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *