Saffron Restaurant and Lounge
123 3rd Street North
Around the corner from Minneapolis’ lively First Avenue and just blocks from the Twins’ new stadium, a modern eatery features contemporary Mediterranean and Middle Eastern fare and an upscale ambiance. Saffron was on our “must-hit” list for some time, though learning its kitchen honcho was a contestant on Iron Chef bumped it up a few spots. We eagerly walked 14 blocks through the crisp spring evening to a quieter area of downtown to take in the culinary sophistication and zing we heard Saffron had to offer.
Our waiter got us started on a bottle of Laurel Glen Zinfandel (a deep, bold-bodied red we enjoyed) while we nibbled on a complementary portion of house hummus – quite large and filling on its own account — and one of Saffron’s mezze platters: the Sheep’s Milk Feta Dip, consisting of pickled hot pepper and feta cheese covered in oregano. Both spreads were outstanding and came alongside a basket of bread for eating – a mix of focaccia and a sweeter variety, cut into thin, soft slices.
The servers brought each item at a leisurely pace – likely because of our blatant request that they do so, but also in line with Saffron’s upbeat but chill vibe. So, after our starters had settled and the contents of our wine bottle had tapered, the entrees arrived. Jim ordered the Lamb Shoulder, Saffron’s signature item and a standout on the dinner menu. On a base of lamb bacon and chickpeas sat a thick, juicy piece of meat with savory drippings connecting all the elements. The flavor was subtle, so it was the meat’s moist and tender texture that made it shine.
Wanting to try something light and original, I opted for the Salmon and Clam Tagine that the menu described as the two proteins with “saffron, peppers, olives, fennel and potatoes.” When it arrived doused in a red sauce, I was taken aback. Not expecting the tomato base (an apparent given, what with the ingredients listed in the menu’s description), I was less than thrilled about a filet of salmon – though cooked to a flaky perfection – swimming in a tangy sauce. But after downing a majority of the dish, I’ll admit it boasted an original combination of flavors that wasn’t as unpleasant as I anticipated. And despite only finding three small clams in the mixture, each one was a soft, delicate treat.
When the remnants of dinner were cleared, we sat back and enjoyed the remainder of our wine while watching the buzz of Saffron trickle to a hum. The restaurant had been alive with social activity when we arrived at 8:30, but slowly transformed into a more relaxed, romantic atmosphere as only the calmer patrons lingered, the outside sky dimmed and Saffron’s soft lighting turned the room aglow. The service was warm and polite, and the food delivered on its unique and sophisticated promise (and though it wasn’t my favorite, it did so even in my entrée surprise). Saffron has conquered the perfect mix, nicely combining every element of a noteworthy restaurant experience to offer customers a night worth repeating.
RATING (out of 5 ♠♠♠♠♠)
Ambiance/Environment: ♠♠♠♠ 1/2
Menu Selection: ♠♠♠
Food Taste & Presentation: ♠♠♠ 3/4
COMPLETE EXPERIENCE: ♠♠♠♠
Total bill: a splurge