Listen: Yours truly had come unstuck in time.
One minute my wife and I were lingering over cappuccinos after a five-course dinner at our honeymoon resort's premier restaurant, reminiscing about the incredible food we'd eaten that week: antojitos and albóndigas for breakfast, avocado stuffed with smoked salmon mousse and caviar, amberjack with black truffle vinaigrette, the unexpected yet somehow perfect pairing of mango sorbet and bean sprouts. Our table overlooked shimmering blue swimming pools. In the distance, above the dark Caribbean, the lights of Cozumel twinkled.
The next minute we were staggering back into our apartment in St. Louis, punch-drunk from 36 sleepless hours, the unexpected end of Mexico's daylight saving time and our valiant, doomed race through DFW Airport to catch a connecting flight home.
And then something startled me awake on my living-room sofa, the World Series game I'd wanted to watch long since over. I vaguely remembered eating pizza for dinner.
The next day, slightly more with-it, I returned to the business of reviewing restaurants. I studied my list of possibilities, but nothing grabbed me. My heart and appetite were still in Playa del Carmen.
But then I remembered Saffron, a new Indian restaurant in a strip mall at the intersection of Manchester and Barrett Station roads. (Look for the Burlington Coat Factory.) I'd tried Saffron's lunch buffet a few weeks earlier. The offerings were standard Indian-buffet fare, more or less, and good. I especially liked the baingan bhartha, a mash of roasted eggplant seasoned with a mild, complex blend of spices, the eggplant retaining exactly enough of its acidic character to give the dish punch.
Another standout was chicken korma, that classic dish of north India, the nutty, yogurt-based sauce light-bodied but full-flavored, perfect for soaking up with naan. Speaking of which, a very nice touch at Saffron's buffet: Rather than making patrons take flabby naan from a pile underneath a heat lamp, each table receives an individual basket of the hot, crisp bread.
The buffet line occupies a back corner of Saffron's main dining room, a large and rather sparely decorated place. (A second, smaller dining room was dark whenever I visited.) When we arrived for dinner the evening after we returned to St. Louis, the dining room was empty. Monday: The slowest day of the restaurant week, by far. As a general rule, even I stay home on Mondays. As I said, though, I was having trouble with time.
At any rate, the restaurant was empty, but — I smiled — the sign inside the front door requested we please wait to be seated, and throughout our meal our service was friendly and efficient. The menu follows the familiar Indian-restaurant template: pakora and samosa appetizers; tandoori chicken; korma, vindaloo or curry with lamb, chicken or seafood; a wide range of vegetarian selections.
Though I have trouble resisting pakora, on that visit we began with the Andheri mirchi bhajji, banana pepper halves stuffed with a blend of coconut and sesame seeds, coated with chickpea batter and deep fried. The heat was definite but not overwhelming, and softened by the coconut. On a later visit I succumbed to the call of pakora and enjoyed the combination platter of paneer, potato, cauliflower and eggplant fritters. You must order this to share; eat more than a few pakora and you won't have room for an entrée.
Though it's impossible to approach anything like a representative survey when dealing with a menu as lengthy as Saffron's, the main courses I tried over two dinners were, in general, very good. The restaurant does lamb exceptionally well; in three separate lamb entrées, every large chunk of meat was very tender.
Best of the lamb entrées was the "signature" biryani of lamb, chicken and vegetables with saffron rice. Though the presence of two different meats gave the dish a certain weight, I was taken with the subtle, complex spicing, at once comfortingly familiar — autumnal — and alluringly exotic. Raita, served on the side, offered a cool, tangy counterpoint.
I thought of that autumnal quality again with the lamb rogan josh, the meat in a tomato sauce spiced with ginger, garlic, cardamom and clove. Here, though, we encountered a common problem at Indian (and Thai and other) restaurants: The slightest dash of extra heat would have amplified the dish's flavors. My dining companion had asked for this medium-spicy, which the kitchen likely interpreted as mild. Not that this was the restaurant's fault. A reminder: Be as precise as you can when requesting your level of heat.
Lack of heat wasn't a problem with the lamb vindaloo. I love vindaloo, that exceptionally spicy Goan dish, and I like to use it as a litmus test of sorts: Will any flavor accompany that heat? In fact, Saffron's packed quite a bit of flavor, the vinegar downright mouth-puckering. Fortunately, a friend had ordered chicken madras, the sauce rich with sweet, cooling coconut milk. Ginger and curry leaves provided a contrasting sharpness.
Among the vegetarian entrées, I liked the palak paneer, spinach and cubes of homemade cheese with ginger and garlic. While this is served in a tomato-based sauce, the spinach sort of wilts into its own sauce, which you can then wrap around the cheese cubes for a cool textural contrast, albeit with a mostly spinach flavor. Channa aloo (chickpeas and potatoes in a sauce of tomatoes and onions) was too mild for my taste, but if I hadn't already sampled the baingan bhartha on the buffet, I gladly would have ordered it as a main course.
Saffron's naan is excellent, especially the version that's topped with garlic. (There's even garlic-cheese naan, a decidedly Western variation stuffed with mozzarella.) I also liked the more humble roti, thin whole-wheat bread.
If you enjoy a Kingfisher or Taj Mahal or any other beer (or wine) with your Indian meal, know that as I write this, Saffron has yet to acquire its liquor license. Our server said we could certainly bring our own beverages.
I can't remember ever having room for dessert at an Indian restaurant, and Saffron was no different, but on our second visit our server brought us three different desserts to try. If you've only had one dessert at an Indian restaurant, it was probably shahi jamun, a dense ball of pastry dough served in rose-flavored syrup. This is reliably tasty, even if the last thing you want after pakora and lamb vindaloo is a heavy doughnut in syrup. Lighter and more complex is saffron-infused rice pudding.
The third dessert, ras malai, was new to me, a sphere roughly as big as the shahi jamun, but much lighter. The texture suggests rice, perhaps softened with coconut milk; in fact, it's made from cheese. It made for an interesting, though not especially flavorful, change of pace. If Saffron doesn't offer many changes of pace from the Indian restaurants you already know, it still affords the pleasures of a complex cuisine prepared well. Satisfying. Delicious. Timeless.
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