If you are organizing a dinner for friends, I believe the human tendency is to be risk averse and go somewhere tried and true where you know it is a safe bet that your guests will enjoy themselves. Well, culinary adventurers, I am making a call for us all to take more risks when it comes to eating - the same way we have all taken enormous risks in the form of student loans and throwing ourselves vulnerably into the search for that coveted internship. With that in mind, I would like to share with you a recent dining experience that our Section 2 FY social and culture cabinet collaborated on called First Fridays. On the first Friday of every month, we will choose a restaurant that reflects the cultural heritage of one of our section-mates. The goals are threefold: to enjoy each other’s company outside of team meetings and the classroom setting; to celebrate each other’s diversity, and what better way to learn more about our classmates’ cultures than through food, a common language and source of intense national pride?; and finally, to encourage classmates who are not turned on by the Durham bar scene to come out en masse. Well, for our First Friday at Saffron, the premier Indian restaurant in the area, en masse was how we rolled. It was kind of like the last supper, only it was the first of many to come, and there were seventeen more people present.
Let me preface this review by saying I recognize that a lot of our Indian classmates are hesitant to eat at Indian restaurants in the area because they simply cannot compare to the real authentic home-cooked meals they grew up eating. And that is almost certainly true. But here we find ourselves nestled in the Triangle region - our new home -, most of us far away from our “primary address,” and we play with the cards we are dealt. Saffron, as my Indian classmates agreed, is like holding pocket Aces, a premium hand to be playing with.
That soapbox felt comfortable and I thank you for indulging me, so without further adieu, let’s get down to business. First off, if you are using a GPS to locate the restaurant, which is out in the middle of nowhereville in RTP, go until the GPS tells you that you are there, and then go about three-quarters of a mile further to the first shopping center on your right. Whatever you do, don’t stop in the middle of the parkway and start looking around for an Indian restaurant perched on top of a hill. Long story, don’t ask, but just keep going on the dark, narrow Davis road – you’ll get there eventually. As I arrived, it didn’t seem like Saffron was used to handling parties of 30, but rare is the restaurant without a private dining room that is. Nevertheless, co-owner Prashanth Jathan and his staff were as creative and accommodating as could be given we showed up with eight more people than they expected.
As tables were added and finally everyone found a seat, toasts were aplenty, usually over supersize 24 ounce bottles of Kingfisher, a popular Indian brew whose lightness seemed to mildly please everyone (keep this a secret but I opted for hot masala tea instead – what can ya do?). To add to the festive atmosphere, we had a birthday to celebrate and the staff graciously brought out a heavenly mango cheesecake to start with a singular birthday candle. Traditional cheesecake = not Indian. Traditional cheesecake + mango = I don’t care what you call it other than delicious. Who says dessert needs to come at the end of a meal?
Appetizers are generally in the $8-$9 range, and as I wanted to strike a balance of game meat and seafood over the course of the meal, I selected one of their stated specialties – Rajasthani Solay, thin slices of lamb in lemon & garlic sauce. The lamb came skewered kabob-style, and while the marinade permeated the meat quite thoroughly, I was not impressed enough given that the restaurant marketed this as a specialty. Though I did not get my grubby hands on any, vegetable samosas served as appetizer redemption according to others. The main menu runs the gamut of lamb, chicken, fish, seafood, and vegetarian entrees, including a special section of dishes cooked in a Tandoor, the traditional clay oven. Entrees run in the $10-14 range for vegetarian, $15-$20 for meat and seafood, and $20- $27 for the tandoor delicacies like smoked lobster and leg of lamb. While it is a nice bonus that rice accompanies main entrees (and well it should), like most nice Indian restaurants naan is a la carte at $3.50. Roti - whole wheat bread - and puris – puffed bread fried in vegetable oil, are also available, but the main attraction is the variety of herbed naan, from basil, rosemary, garlic, jalapeno, and mint. I tasted basil and mint, both of which had the nice doughy texture that naan so desirable with its paired saucy proteins.
I opted for a main entrée of garlic prawn masala – the masala sauce burst with flavor as expected, and the prawns were large, tender, and succulent. As someone who loves spice but cannot handle it very well, I did struggle to finish my entire dish. The dishes are not tagged with spice levels, so I would advise asking the wait staff or consulting a friend if spice level is an issue for you. Nearly everyone loved their dishes, from chicken korma, to lamb chops masala, to a couple of standouts – tandoori paneer and kararee bhindi. Tandoori paneer is homemade cheese (think a densely packed cottage cheese) stuffed with mint, tamarind, and mango sauce and was everything you could want in an appetizer. Both sweet and savory, and filling at the same time that it left everyone wanting just a bit more. Kararee bhindi, ordered by a Saffron veteran, is crispy okra cooked in tomatoes and red onions. I am not a huge okra fan generally, but the preparation delicately removed the natural bitterness of the vegetable and replaced it with a tangy and fun palette-pleaser. The batter is such a light fry that the health-conscious can still feel good about eating “fried” food. It reminds me of a crispy spinach dish called malai palak that I had two weeks earlier at Rasika, the top Indian restaurant in Washington D.C. that is worth a visit if you’re in the area (http://www.rasikarestaurant.com - check out this website if only for the belly dancer that forms the I in the restaurant’s name on the flash intro).
While I am not a stickler for service, a friend and I did discuss the rushed feeling we sensed after how quickly it seemed our plates disappeared. The best meals are those in which you don’t want to get up, and so the cardinal rule of allowing your diners to bask in their revelry appeared lost on Saffron’s staff. While it was getting quite late and approaching closing time, there was still another party remaining. Some opted to order desserts, but the restaurant did bring out complementary gulab jamun (fried milk balls in a sweet syrup) which was a nice way to bring a fantastic meal to its inevitable close.
While I thought the restaurant was a tad overpriced, Saffron certainly lived up to its billing as one of the top twenty five restaurants in the Triangle area and the best Indian food around. So my friend, go ahead and try something you’ve never tried. Like fried okra. Unlike the majority of restaurants, at Saffron, you’ll be heavily rewarded for your risk.
Rating: 3 “OH DA BABIES”
Saffron Restaurant and Lounge
4121 Davis Dr.
Morrisville, NC 27560