Earlier this month we traveled to Saint Louis to visit family and friends. While we were mostly “unplugged” from the net, thankfully we did have some connectivity via our cell phones. As Jon was scanning through the emails coming in, he noticed an email from his absolute FAVORITE restaurant in the Twin Cities, Saffron Restaurant and Lounge! Intrigued, he opened the email and to our delight discovered that we had been invited by the owners, Saed and Sameh Wadi, with an invitation to a private event to view their newly redecorated space and to experience the new menu that was to be released.
He immediately acknowledged the email with an affirmative attendance and then turned to me and said “you get to tell Carolyn that we won’t be able to attend the Twins game that we were scheduled to attend. ”Upon our arrival back in the Twin Cities, we chose an early reservation (5:00pm) thinking that we could take our time at Saffron and still make it to the game. That didn’t work out as well as we had hoped but the dining experience totally outweighed the loss of attending the game.
To begin: the décor. The restaurant has made some noticeable changes to the space. New tables, chairs, and chandeliers that have been placed beautifully throughout the space. The Saffron logo is also painted onto the back wall behind the bar in a vibrant royal blue.
Once seated, we were greeted by both owners who thanked us for our willingness to participate and provide them with candid opinions on the food, presentation, service, etc. Now, anyone familiar with us knows that we can be strongly opinionated when it comes to food – perhaps even too much so when given the opportunity. Based on our conversations with the Saed and Sameh we knew that they were looking for an honest critique of the menu and service.
We began with drinks and appetizers; I had the Arrak and Roll, a faux citrus “arrak”, apricot liqueur, egg white and dry vermouth ($10.) This was my favorite of the evening though having an entire slice of orange floating in the glass was a bit disconcerting. Jon ordered the non-alcoholic Twist & Shout, a roasted lemonade with mint ($4.5). Both were quite enjoyable but the lemonade in particular was extremely tart – but very pleasing to the palate.
Mezze-Tapas-Snacks (To Share)
Sultan Hummus: a puree of chickpeas with tahini, lemon, garlic and Palestinian olive oil; served with a house cured bastirma (a dried beef, Turkish style) ($9). I could have easily enjoyed a plate of the bastirma by itself. It was perfectly seasoned and house cured.
Fried Beef Kubbeh: bulgur shell stuffed with spiced beef and pine nuts served with cucumber yogurt ($6). This is not a new dish but the first time either of us has tried it. I’m not sure how we missed it all these times, but it was truly an amazing dish.
Chicken & Porcini Mushroom Croquettes ($6) is Saffron’s take on the classic Spanish dish. Again, amazing flavors with a fluffy cloud-like texture – definitely a MUST try!!
Octopus “A La Plancha”: octopus cooked on a hot plate with toasted garlic, smoked paprika and sherry ($8). This was an unexpected treat. It had some “tooth” but was not “tough”. It had superb flavors and melded well with the Chicken & Porcini Mushroom Croquettes.
Marinated Olives and Pickles ($5): This dish was less than stellar – it was rather heavy on the vinegar and lacking in other spices and flavors. We put this in our notes with the hope that the recipe can be tweaked. I’d like to hear too, if anyone had a different take on these.
Crispy Potato Chips: Chips served with za’tar yogurt and spicy piquillio pepper sauce ($5). Jon tends to be a chip snob – He tries chips everywhere we go. His two favorites can be found at Buster’s (28th Avenue South & 42nd Street East) and The Citizen Café (38th Street East & 24th Avenue South). According to Jon, the Saffron chips were good, but could have been cooked a little longer (He likes his chips very crisp). Also the chips themselves could have used a little spice on them. The dip, however, was awesome!!
Salads – Apps – Sides:
Quail: stuffed with mirqaz sausage and served with a farro salad – another surprising dish. The flavors were a mix of spicy sausage contrasting with the subtleties of the quail itself. To lay it atop of the farro salad was brilliant ( $14).
Crispy Soft Shelled Crab with watermelon “curry” and cilantro: All we can say is WOW! Keep in mind that soft shelled crab is a seasonal offering and may not always be available. It is a must-have when available. The flavors and textures all blended into a heavenly delight of deliciousness, with the flavors swirling around from a multitude of spices as you’re savoring this dish ($14).
Entrées – Big Plates:
Whole Roasted Branzini: A Mediterranean sea bass with crispy grape leaves, olive oil, lemon and herbs ($MP). If you have any qualms about eating the whole fish then you might choose something else, as this dish comes out as the entire fish – head and all. Not the most “appealing” presentation for Jon, but I did not find this bothersome at all. The flavors and textures of the dish outweighed any presentation squeamishness whatsoever for him.
We chose to add the Grilled Sweet Corn (from the Salad-Apps-Sides) ($5) but were disappointed with the preparation and taste. For me, it was grilled corn, meets State Fair and north Africa. Mentioning this visual to Sameh, this was exactly the idea for which he had in mind.
Pineapple Semolina Cake with pineapple & yogurt sorbets and berries ($7). Unfortunately, the cake was a little too dry. Upon mentioning this to our waiter, he had Sameh taste it as well and he concurred. I’m sure he’ll make this correction toot sweet.
The Blueberry & Peach Trifle with vanilla baked peaches and blueberry/hibiscus preserves layered with lemon cake and candied ginger ($7). Traditionally, trifles are made with “day old” cake that may be a little dry. That’s not a bad thing as the cake is then allowed to absorb the juice of maybe some berries or a simple syrup. A little more of either will make this a perfect summer treat.
Chocolate Ganache Cake with the flavors of Arabic coffee ($8). With an intense flavor of chocolate and coffee ice cream, this was definitely my favorite of the evening.
The servers did a great job of keeping us informed about the different foods; describing them, having a willingness to discuss their favorites, and offering suggestions for wine pairings. Again, because this event was a trial run – there were some minor glitches but overall the staff made every effort to ensure we had a great experience. This is one of the many reasons that Jon, in particular, enjoys going to Saffron. Service has almost ALWAYS been spot on. The servers are members of the staff who’ve been with the restaurant for some time; they remember your names; they remember the drinks you prefer; all of those little nuances that make the experience that much more enjoyable.
I encourage everyone to experience Saffron and their new menu and décor. Though I personally will miss the white-tablecloths, the new Saffron is more causal but just as welcoming as always. It’s a place to visit a couple of times a month, if not every week. It’s an easy stop before a Twins game, after work for a quick bite, or to enjoy a two hour dinner on a Saturday night.
Your culinary windows will be opened and the opportunity for Sameh Wadi to expand your palate will amaze you. And I am quite certain that your front of the house experience will be just as perfect as it always is – especially knowing that Saed is directing traffic. His warm smile, his gentle hand shake and his genuine love of people always makes one feel so at ease when coming to dine with them.
I hope you enjoy the entire experience as much as we did. And oh by the way, I was able to catch the last inning of the game, which was the most exciting anyway as we hung on to the win.
Saffron Restaurant & Lounge, 123 North Third Street, Minneapolis, MN, 612.746.5533