Thursday was Carol’s birthday, so we (Carol, her sister, her niece and I) went for dinner to her favorite restaurant – Saffron in the Warehouse District. I had dined at Saffron earlier this year when the owners – chef Sameh Wadi and his brother Saed – put on a press event to get out the word that their restaurant isn’t just for special occasions. The message was supposed to be, you can have a satisfying dining experience at Saffron without spending an arm and a leg.
To get this message out they invited a bunch of food writers to come as their guests and order anything and everything they wanted, compliments of the house. (They also got rid of the white tablecloths, which apparently some diners found intimidating.) This turned out to be a terrific gastronomic experience – my friend Lu Lippold wrote about it for the Twin Cities Daily Planet. But since all of us food writers gorged ourselves, and didn’t have to pay for any of it (though we did pay for our drinks), it provided no evidence for the proposition that the Wadis were trying to put across.
So I left that prior dinner very content, but still wondering whether it is actually possible to really enjoy the Saffron dining experience on a modest budget. (Saed Wadi had claimed that you could, for example, order the lamb BLT ($8) and a beer, and spend less than you would for a beer and a burger at the new Twins ballpark nearby. Or maybe that was my example. But suppose you wanted something more substantial than a beer and a lamb BLT?)
At any rate, back to last night’s dinner. We didn’t actually go there intending to be parsimonious, or test the Wadis’ claim- we just ordered a bunch of stuff to share, and didn’t pay much attention to the prices. We started with the mezze (small plates): hummus royale ($9), a family recipe made with chickpeas, tahini, lemon, garlic and Palestinian olive oil, with house-cured bastirma (dried beef; the ancestor of pastrami) and fried chickpeas – rich, creamy and delicious; and the fried cauliflower ($6), golden deep-fried nuggets accompanied by a feta cheese fondue, also irresistibly tasty. Sort of the way fried cheese curds are irresistible.
But the knocked-our-socks-off favorite in this round was the slow-cooked green beans with tomato ($6), prepared from an old family recipe. The beans are cooked for two hours, with the spices added in stages. Cinnamon? Nutmeg? Cloves? Just guessing, but this dish is worth the trip all by itself.
Next came a trio of dishes from the salads, apps and and sides section of the menu. The salad of watermelon and heirloom tomato with cow’s milk feta, charred jalapeño and basil ($8), was a lovely and lively presentation that balanced sweet, salty and spicy. (For another dish in the same spirit, try the mezze of warm haloumi cheese with watermelon and mint.)
The grilled leek and sheep’s milk feta tart with tomato, spicy piquillo pepper sauce and arugula didn’t inspire any great enthusiasm, but the table went wild over the coriander potatoes ($7), fingerlings stewed with roasted potatoes in a caramelized paprika butter.
Portions weren’t enormous, but nicely paced, and when the time came to order the next course, we skipped over the big plates, and went straight to the restaurant’s signature tagines – Moroccan stews served in an earthenware pot. The nightly seafood tagine combined Lake Winnipeg whitefish and Manila clams in a savory stew of green olives, potatoes and tomato. Sublime. We dithered about whether to order the small portion ($19) or the large ($27, I think), until our very engaging server pointed out that we could always order dessert, if the smaller tagine wasn’t sufficient.
But the small order proved to be ample, and delicious; and we decided that it was the perfect note on which to end a wonderful dining experience. Carol’s sister Peg proclaimed it one of the best meals she had ever had.
Dessert? No thank you.
But it turned out that Sameh Wadi had other plans for us. A parade of desserts soon arrived at our table – a rich flourless mocha chocolate ganache ($8), accompanied by a scoop of homemade ice cream; a traditional pastry plate with cookies, baklava and a rosewater-scented cream ($9), and my favorite, kunafa ($9), shredded wheat and cheese topped with pistachios and a cardamom saffron syrup, baked in the oven and served hot in the pan.
I made a game effort to insist on paying for the desserts, but Sameh refused. The total bill for dinner for four, including a glass of wine apiece (and not including some complimentary cocktails) came to $111. With tip, that worked out to less than $35 apiece. Service was terrific, even though the vibe was more casual.
For a dining experience of this caliber, that’s a terrific deal.