Earlier this year, a chef I was talking to predicted the 2022 return of fine dining, only redefined – still elevated, just more fun and not stuffy. Downtown’s new Lupi & Iris is giving us a stylish taste of that. Also tackling a kind of reimagination is the Third Ward’s summer opener Saffron Modern Indian Dining. During a pre-opening phone call, co-owner Fatima Kumar tried to explain the “modern” quality without giving too much away, a little like providing a film plot synopsis without revealing spoilers. The thread led to the visuals – elegance of décor, plate and even drinks, not the more common casual approach to Indian dining.
Saffron is modern in that way, the stuff that Instagram dreams are made of. The menu – a blend of traditional and fusion Indian cuisine – is not pedestrian. But for all the polish of the interior, the food needs more grounding, tweaks that would warrant its fine dining-level prices.
That first night, seated at an unappealing spot in back near the kitchen and servers station, we launch right in with the spinach chaat ($14) – a crispy salad of fried chopped baby spinach, yogurt and chile lime dust mango chutney – and shredded lamb bites ($18), which remind me of Chinese bao buns. We’re served two “bites,” which are more like small sandwiches, of Malabar paratha, a flatbread from South India, wrapped around saucy shredded lamb. The chaat is crispy, delicately sweet-sour and very tasty. And I enjoy the bites’ tender, cumin-scented marinated lamb, though I yearn for a flakier, less pancake-like bread.
Of our large plates, the juicy, just whisperingly seasoned (think cumin, coriander, ginger) tandoori salmon (four small filets, $29) is the winner, but I’m surprised the fish doesn’t come with a starch. The other dish – butter chicken with a small bowl of steamed basmati rice ($27) – has the requisite creamy, curry-tomato sauce that makes it one of the richest creations in North Indian cuisine. It also has a little more dimension than typical butter chicken, hinting of saffron and fenugreek. Good sauce, it just contains very little chicken.
Fast forward to my next meal – this time in luxe chairs at the custom-cut white quartz bar – when the menu success rate is higher. Two dishes are quite good – shrimp moilee (a South Indian coconut milk curry, $28) and lamb biryani ($28), with hunks of tender meat, caramelized-like rice and boosts of flavor from fresh cardamom pods and cumin seeds. On the flip side, the curry crab dosa ($15) – a dosa is a large, very thin crisp pancake – just doesn’t deliver. The lump crab is too briny, dominating the delicate dosa, and the seasoning lacks depth.
From an ambiance standpoint, Saffron feels like one of the new places to be. But its elevated culinary take on tradition doesn’t quite match that excitement – yet.
223 N. WATER ST. | 414-539-4980
Hours: Lunch: Tues-Sun 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m.; Dinner: Tues-Thurs, Sun 5-9:30 p.m.; Fri-Sat 5-10 p.m.
Prices: Small plates $12-$18; tandoori and entrées $22-$32
SERVICE: Working out the kinks