Sunday, November 15, 2009

Saffron Restaurant and Lounge - November Fuqua Times

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 ( - 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


Dos Perros - from October Fuqua Times

Greetings Team Fuqua! Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Josh Makaron and I will be standing here in the Culinary Corner every so often, facing the wall and thinking about what I have done wrong as a First Year. You’ve all come to know and love Tali’s helpful cooking tips and recipes, and if you haven’t tried out any of her suggestions yet this year, I would strongly urge you to – she knows her stuff. I am here to play the blue devil a bit (pun definitely intended), and encourage everyone to find the time to indulge in a nice meal out with friends every once in a while. Before you go all Jessie Spano on me about how there’s never any time, consider this quote from M.F.K. Fisher, one of the very first to write seriously about food: “And above all – friends should possess the rare gift of sitting. They should be able, no eager, to sit for hours – three, four, six – over a meal of soup and wine and cheese, as well as one of twenty fabulous courses. Then, with good friends of such attributes, and good food on the board, and good wine in the pitcher, we may well ask – when shall we live if not now?”

The triangle area, and Durham in particular, has a plethora of tried and true restaurants that not only offer good value, but also have the ability to compete on a national level. This year, I will be trying to steer you in the right direction with some reviews of places you may not yet have discovered. There is no pay for play here at the Fuqua Times, so I am giving you my unbiased account. My authority lies only in the fact that I live to eat rather than eat to live, but without further adieu, come take a walk with me through revitalized downtown Durham to Dos Perros, the brand new refined Mexican joint at the corner of N. Mangum and Parrish.

I visited Dos Perros as one of a party of two on a Thursday night around 8:30 pm. The restaurant had a somewhat empty feel to it, but not overwhelmingly so, and there was still a light din from a few larger groups and bar patrons. We were greeted with a warm welcome by the hostess and manager, and then oddly enough seated at a table for four when there were tables for two available. Maybe they could foresee that the amount of food we would order would necessitate a larger table – in any event, we were too lazy to pipe up and happy to get rolling with some drinks and comida. Dos Perros has an extensive tequila list, a decent selection of beer and wine, and a specialty cocktail list that might be their bread and butter. A refreshing gin cocktail with lemongrass didn’t quite have that Mexican sound or feel that I was hoping for, but I’m never one to complain about lemonade with a kick. A watermelon tequila special was nice and light – a bit heavy on the tequila, but preferable to the oversweetness that watermelon drinks are prone to. Next time I plan to try the bourbon drink that is made with bitters, orange, and love – that’s right, amor in a drink. When I asked the waitress what exactly “love” was, she expressed similar feelings of confusion. I think we shared a moment.

We started with guacamole, which was heavy on the NaCl, especially when combined with the salty tortilla chips. On the recommendation of the owners of Toast, one of my favorite eateries downtown, we ordered a number of small plates: The ceviche, a dish of lime-cured local seafood with crisp tortillas was an above average ceviche with a nice level of acidity and fresh, tender chunks of white fish, shrimp, and crab; ensalada de nopales, marinated cactus paddles with tomato, onion, and avocado, fell short of expectations but did exceed a prior experience with cactus and bonus points for no signs of thorns anywhere. Never had cactus before? It tastes just like chicken. And by chicken I mean peppers. It’s worth a try if only to say you’ve eaten cactus. The winner turned out to be the tamal oaxaqueno, diced chicken with mole negro wrapped up in banana leaves. The banana leaves helped to sear in the flavors of the rich but not overpowering mole.

One of the knocks on Dos Perros is that in its infant stages it often runs out of dishes. This will undoubtedly improve with time as the staff figures out what items are the most popular and can better gauge their required supplies for any given night, but this did prove unfortunate as we were looking forward to the Mayan style grouper which was not for sale. In its place, we opted to split a main dish of camarones al ajillo - sauteed shrimp with garlic and guajillo chiles. The shrimp were perfectly cooked, and the Mexican rice was packed with spice that makes you smile, not sweat. With all of the above we were stuffed, but since all good meals end with dessert, we split a rice pudding. We would have been better off without it as it was a mediocre effort. Other desserts sounded enticing, so I am hesitant to say that you’re better off heading to Ben & Jerry’s after, but I would avoid the rice pudding as its texture was too pulverized and the raisins offputting rather than enhancing.

The service was unobtrusive, yet visible and efficient when warranted. Not quite ninja-like, but made for a pleasant experience. Our waitress also offered some other local recommendations, but I’ll need to keep those a secret right now for future FT issues. Dos Perros is definitely vegetarian friendly, as most Mexican restaurants tend to be, but they do have some veggie entrees that sounded even better than the proteins even to a carnivorous animal like myself. Both the baked corn pudding with grilled poblanos, garlic sauce, and queso asadero, and the vegetable and masa dumplings piqued my interest – but we live to eat another day. Though Dos Perros won’t break the bank like some of Durham’s top restaurants, the bill can add up if you start piling on the drinks. Appetizers run in the $4-$8 range, and while they are somewhat small, they are fairly priced for the quality. There isn’t an entrée over $20, so if you want to have a drink, and share some small plates and entrees amongst a group, you can leave there satiated at a very reasonable expense.

The interior décor matches the building’s bright yellow façade, with a Mexican festival charm that is a bit different than that of our beloved Cosmic Cantina, but playful nonetheless. For a variety of experiences, you can choose to sit at the bar or in the dining area where the kitchen is semi-open and visible. Dos Perros is open for lunch from 11:30am to 2:30 pm Monday to Friday, serves dinner from 5 to 10:30 pm Monday through Saturday, and plans to serve breakfast soon. But most importantly, Monday nights are $5 margaritas. Reservations are highly recommended for Friday and Saturday nights as the newbie restaurant is already a hit among the young urban Durham crowd. If you can steal away during the day, the lunch menu is designed to be more of a quick hitter and may be a nice time to sample some dishes not found on the dinner menu. Raul, the manager, made us feel taken care of on our way out just as the food from Executive Chef Josh DeCarolis made us feel taken care of throughout the meal. Overall, Dos Perros gets 2.5 out of 4 “Oh Da Babies.”

Dos Perros

200 N. Mangum St.

Durham, NC 27701