Monday, October 29, 2012

Saffron – Minneapolis, MN

It is restaurant week and D.Rough and I like to take advantage of a restaurant or two that has a special menu. We’d both heard Saffron was worth checking out, so we drove to downtown Minneapolis in the rain. We probably could have found some on street parking, but due to the weather, it was worth $10 (not really) to park in the parking lot next to the restaurant.

The inside is smaller than either of us imagined. It isn’t necessarily small, but I think we had expected it to be more expansive, based on the number of people who had told us to go here. It’s also really dark and atmosphere-y in here. I tell you this so you’ll understand when you see my REALLY crappy photographs due to the lighting. With the downtown Minneapolis crowd, you get a mix of everyone, which is always nice to see. We were looking forward to some delicious Mediterranean food. I had already peeked the Restaurant Week special menu, so I had some idea what I wanted. But I knew I wanted to start with a cocktail. D.Rough went with a Saffron Rose (gin, saffron, orange blossom water, and sparkling rosé) and I needed a Balvenie DoubleWood (scotch). Both were delicious.

The Restaurant Week menu is a sort of special tasting menu that lets you pick from a few appetizers, entrees, and desserts. I think this helped us out tremendously, since we wanted everything on the regular dinner menu. Seriously, it all sounds good. But we wanted to limit ourselves to make things easier. Thankfully, almost everything on the tasting menu sounded delicious as well. The only questions were if we were going to play nicely and share with each other. Hahahaha. Oh wait!!! The OTHER question was if we were going to do the additional wine pairing with each course. Dur.

We decided to get one of each salad: The Green Salad had sherry vinegar, smoked paprika almonds, poached black figs, and Spanish blue cheese. The Blood Orange & Feta Salad had oranges and feta, as well as oil cured black olives, Aleppo chili, and mint.

For our entrees, we got Arni Youvetsi (a Greek dish) – stewed lamb in tomatoes and greek spices baked with orzo and mizithra cheese. We also got the eight vegetable couscous (a Moroccan dish) with vegetables, chick peas, and north African spices.

For dessert, we went back and forth but decided to both get the same thing, since we don’t always share desserts well. We got the Salted Caramel Trifle – a salted caramel pudding layered with chocolate cake, cashew praline, and whipped cream. SUPER EXCITED!

They brought out the first wine pairing: for the Green Salad, Santa Barbara, Verdichio, Marche, Italy ’09. And for the Blood Orange & Feta Salad, Arona, Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, New Zealand ’11.

Then the salads arrived. One looked like a salad we expected – the Green Salad. IT was really flavorful, thanks to the smoked paprika almonds, figs, and blue cheese. I was really happy with this salad and would absolutely eat this again. The Blood Orange & Feta salad looked unusual, but ended up being great. The oranges (which were decidedly NOT blood oranges) went well with the olives and mint. And the aftertaste was a delicious chili burn that enhanced the citrus from the orange. Really a fun salad! Additionally, the wines they had paired with it were amazingly appropriate. I’m not a wine snob, but both wines went with their respective salads better than I expected. They added another level of flavor both to the wine and the salad. Well done, sommelier.

The next wine pairing came out for the entrees. For the lamb, Santa Barbara, Rosso Piceno, Marche, Italy ’09. And for the couscous, Domaine Pichot “Demi Sec”, Vouvray, France ’10.

The entrée courses arrived shortly after – now it was serious. The lamb was served in a really hot cast iron dish sitting on a wooden plate and it smelled incredible. The lamb was shredded and mixed in with the orzo and cheese. This is, I’m pretty sure, one of the best lamb dishes I’ve ever had. There was a faint hint of tomato in the flavor, but the spices used brought out the non-gamey features of the lamb perfectly. Wow. It was the best thing we had on the table. Without question. Additionally, when paired with the Rosso Piceno, it was even better. It was nice to see that D.Rough finally saw the value of the perfect pairing of wine with different courses. Of course, it has to be done right, but this was the best pairing I’ve had.

The couscous should not be left out of the mix though. I’ve had very few couscouses I didn’t like, but I’ve had even fewer that I’d rave about. This was one of them. I couldn’t’ even figure out what the eight vegetables were, but they were fantastic. There were some squash elements in it, and possibly a turnip or rutabaga or something. But the seasonings brought it all together with just a tiny hint of cinnamon. I’m extremely sensitive to cinnamon (or so I’m told), and this was the perfect amount. Enough to taste it, but not enough so that it’s an ingredient – it’s a seasoning, after all. Perfectly cooked couscous hidden under a mound of delicious vegetables. That made me not feel sad that I didn’t get to eat most of the lamb (I promise I’m not complaining, D.Rough). And again, the wine they paired with it was perfect. I’m a fan of Vouvray normally, but oddly, I don’t’ think I’ve tried it with a couscous dish. I will, going forward, however.

Finally, the wine came out for the dessert – Lustau, Rare Cream Sherry, Jerez, Spain NV, followed by the Salted Caramel Trifle.
The server warned us this thing was pretty rich, and she was right. It was heavy duty. A layer of crushed dark chocolate cake/cookie on the bottom of the highball glass it was served in, topped with a thick layer of salted caramel pudding, and then a dollop of homemade whipped cream on top. A few sprinkles of praline brittle completed the dish. You really have to scoop deep in the glass to get all of the flavors on your spoon. It’s worth it though. The salted caramel flavor is wonderful and goes well with the bitterness of the dark chocolate cookie at the bottom. We got about half way through the thing before we both slowed considerably. There is a LOT of dessert in that cup. I’m glad I got it, but it totally wiped me out. The sherry was a nice accompaniment, but by then, we were so full of dessert, we didn’t finish it.

Overall, this was one of our best Restaurant Week experiences (so far). The food itself was brilliant, but the wine pairings added so much more than either of us expected. If you’re in the mood for some wine with your dinner at Saffron, let the servers pair you with something nice here. It was the best set of food-wine matches we’ve ever had. The atmosphere is upscale without being snooty here. If you’ve been to the Red Stag, we’d say it’s just down a slight peg from there in atmosphere, but still really nice. I’d love to come back here again and order some fun things off their regular menu. In fact, we’re both looking forward to that.

Top 5 things about Saffron
1. Perfect wine pairings enhanced both food AND wine
2. Arni Youvetsi – stewed lamb
3. Eight Vegetable Couscous
4. Blood orange & Feta Salad
5. I now crave salted caramel pudding
6. (Seeing David Boil when I went to the bar to check out the Scotch selection)

Bottom 5 things
1. Large, heavy dessert portion (still delicious tasting though)
2. Parking was pricey, even for downtown Minnie
3. Blood oranges weren’t actually blood oranges
4. The food is on the pricey side, but is doable if you’re not ordering 15 things
5. I really wanted to get the grilled halumi cheese…. Sigh… next time.

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