Restaurant tour: Saffron highlights

July 26, 2009

Saffron Restaurant

I had visitor for the past two days that obsesses about food as much as I do. One of the restaurants mentioned below rates among the fancier restaurants of Minneapolis. I fell in love with what I ate there and when I told my roommate and his girlfriend about it I had to explain the money spent on such small portions: “it’s about taste, not stuffing your face.” They did not understand. The girl eats bland foods because anything more rich than ramen makes her stomach upset and the boy eats whatever happens to be on his plate.

But on to the food (if you read nothing else in this article, read about the last restaurant, Saffron):

The first place we stopped for food was Fasika. A short review: my mother teaches English as a Second Language to many Ethiopian students and all have said this is the place to go for authentic Ethiopian food. I trust that. You walk in to the restaurant and hit a waft of clove and cinnamon black tea. You tell the waitress, whose English is just good enough to understand your butchering of the words on the menu, what you want and 10-20 minutes later you find a plate half the size of the table in front of you with injera and your dish on it. No silverware here. I got the Ybeg Tibs and my company ordered the Ybeg Alicha Wot, both lamb dishes and on the menu on the website. My dish was good, but the lamb was tough and over cooked. My dish also came with some berbere which was hotter than I planned on. The Ybeg Alicha Wot was amazing. It was citrusy and tender.

Later that night we ate at a place called The Vegetarian on Central and 40th. Another place where on entering you are not sure whether you just walked into the slum, but then the Palak Paneer, Mutter Paneer, Nan, and Mango Lassi is set in front of you and you wonder why you have not been here before.

The next morning Kopplin’s Coffee was the destination. Andrew Kopplin, the owner, is a chocolatier as well as a Barista with amazing taste. If you order a cup of jo you’re going to be able to choose from about 10 different coffees, but you won’t have to drink from the pot that was brewed an hour and a half ago because this guy makes every cup of coffee fresh. When you order your cup of coffee the barista grinds the beans and brews it on the spot for a thick and really flavorful cup. Nearly a french press whenever you order, you can taste the difference between the regions. The espresso drinks are brewed in traditional Italian portions. This means when you get your espresso macchiatto it comes in a demitasse cup with a tiny spoon. The kicker: you also get what looks like a painting of a pine tree on the top. The latte art at this place marks their expertise and care, not their covering up of poor quality. It’s more expensive than going to Starbucks, but it’s worth it.

A Minneapolis staple was hit for lunch: Holy Land. A buffet that only cost $8.49. The buffet is huge. Mouska, tzatziki, gyros, greek salad, hummus, pita, honey cake, roast chicken and lamb, doro wat, and that’s just the beginning. The fresh peach juice was something amazing. We also stopped in the attached market and got some prickly plums, labna (a yogurt cheese that is sour and delicious), semolina for some polenta, and a huge one galloner of Sultan first cold press olive oil.

The capstone on the trip was a stop at Saffron on 1st ave and 3rd st in Minneapolis. This is where the audible groans of amazing flavor blew out from my gustatory enjoyment. Good God!

First and most disgustingly (if you think about it too long), the Lamb Brain. It came out as a left hemisphere of the brain sitting on some micro greens. It had been seered and was served with garlic confit and some roasted cherry tomatoes with a parsley oil. The texture was definitely brain-ey, and I loved that I could identify some of the structures – even on such a small scale (I was explaining white and gray matter to my dining partner when she told me to shut up and eat it, haha).

Next item on the list was white anchovies. They were marinated in harissa and served with a preserved lemon sauce. I have made preserved lemons in the past and I either messed it up or like preserved lemons about as much as I like being paddled on the ass. I’m guessing it is the former because this dish did not offend me at all. After the marinade the anchovies were briefly sauteed (I think) then the preserved lemon came in as a sauce. I cannot say I would throw myself at this dish again, but for not liking anchovies or preserved lemons it was not bad.

I have a penchant for eating things that freak out my more normal dining friends, though it is not difficult since even medium rare steak does that sometimes.  When I reported that I ate carpaccio they were thinking they should pack me up for the hospital. Silly inexperienced eaters. The carpaccio had white truffle browned butter vinaigrette , but it was thick, more like a paste than a sauce. A single hazelnut and some microgreens topped the half millimeter thick slices of tenderloin. It was a beautiful presentation and the truffle flavor came through brilliantly.

We finished off our eating with a duck confit. But it was different from any confit I have had. The dish was served with the duck shredded sitting in a crust of phyllo dough. A good combination of the tenderness of the meat with the flakey crunch of the phyllo dough. It also came with a Moroccan carrot salad, the carrots were jullienned with a preserved lemon sauce. The flavor confused me because it distinctly went from sweet to bitter and back to sweet. My taste buds might have been fooling me.

The bartender served us a complimentary beverage of roasted lemonade with mint and arac. The lemons were cut in half and roasted with sugar coating them for about 30 minutes. Then the whole lemon was blended and put through a sieve. Add sugar and water and it came out as a syrupy smooth lemonade. The minced mint was added and turned the beverage a kind of green you do not want to drink. Finally, the arac was added. The arac is a Lebanese liquor that shared a flavor profile with Sambuca.

Saffron hit the spot. I recommend it. For all that we ate (the brain, anchovies, carpaccio, and duck confit) and one premium we paid $36.00. And like I said, it was not about getting full, but about getting full flavors. The price was worth it.

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