“I know that the food is our weak point,” says Ruheena Malik, owner of the recently opened Saffron, causing me to shift uneasily in my dining chair and setting off alarm bells in my head. Early reviews of this new entrant in the restaurant business have been mixed — some loved the food, others raved only about the décor. And this afternoon I’m here to out the truth. Despite competition from neighbouring Flo and Koel, Saffron has managed to do brisk business since its opening.
Without a doubt the place is impressively done. Malik is a calligrapher and her love of the arts gives Saffron the feel of an antique shop or furniture showroom. Carved wooden furniture, intricate jharokas, a sumptuous jhoola and a quaintly canopied section where artisans paint pottery by hand — one feels that this should all be a bit too much but it actually isn’t; the place is quietly, deeply serene and one relaxes as soon as one steps in the environs.
The dining area is luxuriously spacious. The place can seat up to 300 people — more with the rooftop open. Hands on about the interior and management, Ruheena talks about the challenges of running a new restaurant. Saffron’s opening was almost unplanned. The restaurant was doing trials among friends when customers, thinking that the place was open, started walking in. In the initial days the entire staff suddenly staged a walk out and Malik’s personal staff had to fill in since there was a reservation of over a hundred people for dinner. “I used to complain if I got bad service at a restaurant but now I realise how difficult it is,” says Malik with a laugh. Up to now focusing her energies on running the place, she now says, “I want to take all my creativity to the kitchen.” For Ramzan, Saffron attempts to combine fine dining with tradition in its iftar and dinner buffet. “I’ve taken out my grandmother’s recipes for the gulab jamuns and the samosas,” says Malik.
The starter was a mushroom and artichoke gratin. Homey, comforting and flavourful, it marked a good beginning for our meal, but the doubt lingered, for after all, how wrong could anyone go with a gratin? A recurring refrain among foodies is that no sooner have they showered praise upon a restaurant that they get complaints from diners who visit the establishment weeks later only to be disappointed with indifferent fare. With that in mind, I approached the main course with skepticism but was pleasantly surprised.
The tiger prawns in shell were succulent, firm, and done just right with the side vegetables yummy through and through, if somewhat lacking in originality. The mutton shank came highly recommended and was everything a mutton shank could be though the masala was a wee bit intense for my liking. The toothsome molten chocolate cake topped off the meal.
So what is the verdict on Saffron? The food is delicious by any standard; the service is friendly and attentive without being at all intrusive; the interior and atmosphere surpass expectations; and in a city where tiny restaurants give the impression of fly by night operations, the dining space at Saffron is reassuringly substantial.
But Saffron lacks an identity — its name evokes Persian cuisine, in its décor, it is desperately desi, its offerings are faintly Mediterranean. “We need a signature dish,” says the owner. This signature style will develop only with time.
Saffron: D-82, Block 4, Clifton, Karachi. 3587 6090, 3586 8394
Published in The Express Tribune, August 15th, 2010.
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