Restaurant Review

An ambitious menu that makes choosing tough

CorrespondentJuly 22, 2011 

  • 3140 Environ Way, Chapel Hill


    Cuisine: Indian

    Rating: 1/2

    Prices: $$$

    Atmosphere: exotically elegant

    Noise level: low to moderate

    Service: well-trained and attentive

    Recommended: you can't go wrong

    Open: lunch Tuesday-Friday, dinner Tuesday-Sunday.

    Reservations: accepted

    Other: full bar; accommodates children; excellent vegetarian selection; patio; lunch thali ($25 for two) includes choice of one appetizer, three entrees, rice and naan.

    The N&O's critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: Extraordinary Excellent. Above average. Average. Fair.

    The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.

When the original Saffron opened in 2006 in Morrisville, it raised the bar for local Indian restaurants. In a genre where straightforward authenticity and a casual setting had been the rule, its ambitious menu and upscale decor were a welcome addition. So welcome, in fact, that it wasn't long before the owners began planning a second location in Chapel Hill.

But before they were able to open the restaurant, the owners parted ways. Prashanth Jathan headed up a partnership that opened Saffron of Chapel Hill last year in the new East 54 residential and retail complex. As the name implies, the new restaurant traces its pedigree to the original, but it is by no means a clone.

In fact, Saffron of Chapel Hill sets the bar even higher. Executive chef Durga Prasad helped open the internationally acclaimed Buhkara in New Delhi in 1977 and has since worked in a number of restaurants worldwide (most recently Tamarind in New York City). Prasad's background is reflected in an ambitious offering that occasionally incorporates Western techniques and flavors, but remains firmly rooted in Indian tradition.

Temptations are many and varied and so consistently well-executed that the only suggestion I can offer is to follow your whim. Are you craving traditional Indian fare? Textbook vegetarian samosas won't let you down, for starters. Nor will tamatar shorba, a velvety soup of fresh tomatoes and cream, redolent of cumin and ginger. Same goes for kathi spring roll, the chef's vegetarian take on a paratha-wrapped street food classic.

Feeling more adventurous? Start with scallop mint masala, a still life on a plate featuring day boat scallops artfully arranged in a vibrant green mint-cilantro sauce. Or makhmali seek, succulent lamb kebabs encircling a small salad in a light mint chutney-mayonnaise dressing. Or, if it's offered as a special, angara tikka, a spicy variation on the familiar chicken tikka ("angara" means "red coals," a reference to both the flavor and the spice-reddened appearance of the succulent nuggets of tandoori-cooked chicken).

Fish, lamb and more

The entree offering presents similarly difficult choices. Do you go with tandoori basil sea bass, surrounded by a colorful flotsam of fresh vegetables in a tide pool of tomato-green-pepper sauce? Or the luxuriously rich lamb shank maharaja, marinated in star anise, bay leaves and dark rum?

Murgh chettinad, a Southern Indian specialty starring boneless chicken in an addictively spicy onion sauce punctuated with red chiles and black pepper, is also worthy of consideration. So is Malabar machali, which showcases the fish of the day (recently an impeccably fresh filet of Basa, a mild, flaky fish in the catfish family) in a curry-leaf-spangled sauce of tomato, onion and coconut milk.

By no means should you overlook the vegetarian offering. Began pasanda - which serves up slices of eggplant, marinated in garlic-ginger paste and smoked in a clay oven, atop a rich eggplant puree - deserves its billing as a house specialty. Nargisi kofta features a large patty of minced fresh vegetables molded around paneer, in a sauce that's so addictive you'll want to be sure you've ordered one of the baked-to-order flatbreads to sop up every last drop.

But which flatbread? The tandoor turns out half a dozen naan variations (plain, garlic, mint, basil, jalapeño and rosemary), as well as whole-wheat roti and buttery, flaky paratha. The mixed bread basket, which includes your choice of three, neatly solves the dilemma. Unless, that is, you decide to splurge on kulcha: naan stuffed with your choice of savory fillings, from cheese to onion to lamb.

Desserts to savor

Decisions don't get any easier when it comes to dessert. Gulab jamun and carrot halwah are both exemplary. But I'd happily pass up both if the extraordinarily rich, saffron- and cardamom-fragrant rice pudding were available as a special.

Saffron's decor is evocative of an Indian palace, from the shimmery silk-cushioned banquettes lining verdigris walls to the ornate metal-clad columns and arches that frame a romantic smaller room within the spacious main dining room. A well-stocked bar offers a solid selection of beers, wines and exotic specialty cocktails. A commendably well-trained and attentive wait staff lives up to the high expectations set by the setting and the food.

If you like the old Saffron, you'll love the new one.

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