Venue Review: Saffron
The Charlotte Observer
Saffron caters to both lovers of the new and traditionalists - not a surprise, since its owner made her reputation as a caterer of elaborate Indian wedding feasts, surely a bastion of both new lovers and those committed to old standards.
Sangeeta Yadav, originally from Uttar Pradesh in north India, cooked as a hobby in Charlotte until she gave a party for 20 a decade ago. Someone asked her to do the same for them, and she was off: another party, a wedding for 400, then more and yet more. She did multi-regional fare, adding dosas and idlis from the south to the north's tandoor dishes and curries.
But even then, she had an ear for the new.
In a phone conversation 10 years ago with her mother, still in India, she learned that "something new is going on here" - people were adding fenugreek to the relatively modern classic called chicken tikka masala, said her mother. Yadav tried it - and the dish became a customer favorite.
Now, while she still caters events for 20 to 700 - and still favors fenugreek - she's opened Saffron, hired a chef (Salvinder Singh from Punjab, another northern state) and jacked up her contemporary ratio.
Roughly half the menu is traditional fare, from the flatbread called naan to the thick, creamy spinach with yogurt cheese called saag paneer. The other half focuses on modern dishes (lamb saag, shrimp curry) and what Yadav calls "avant garde": sea bass with sauteed spinach and a sauce of coconut, sesame and cashews. In these, what's usually served within a curry - a gravy, of sorts - becomes the main attraction on a platter, and the flavors of the curry appear as an accompanying sauce instead.
Feather-light basmati rice comes with everything, and presentations are brightly colored, with mixed vegetables (even the occasional water chestnut) on the side of many platters.
This deconstruction makes the complex layering of spices a little more obvious, a little more vivid.
Our sea bass was exquisite, but so was a simple saag paneer, as well as an appetizer of paneer (that soft cheese) spiced with cumin, mango powder and tamarind sauce and served with a few mixed greens and spicy strawberry dressing. The classic samosa is made here as a beggar's purse. The crackery complimentary poppadum comes in whole curved sheets, with a tray of sauces: tamarind, the simple yogurt-cucumber sauce known as raita, and mango chutney that's divine.
Chicken haryali is chicken rolled around spices, and served in sliced cylinders (a mite bland), while paneer nirvana is a terrific blend of grilled vegetables and cheese with a red pepper sauce.
Servers in black are genial, though rather leisurely. The kitchen's pace, too, is a slow one, so plan for that.
The restaurant is lovely, from a long, deep-gold wall with elegant stenciling to a contemporary niched wall divider and interestingly shaped dishes. A few details suffer (flowers on tables were a trifle elderly, for example) but overall, the place achieves a pleasant blend of now and then - just right for what it's offering to Charlotte.