If there were such a thing as a do-it-yourself Indian-restaurant kit, you might think that Sarbjit Singh and his wife, Navneet Kaur, owners of the two-month-old Saffron Authentic Indian Restaurant, had used one to put together their tidy, no-frills dining room in the Northland.
It's not a particularly warm or welcoming space, and it's painted a cringe-inducing shade of yellow that might have come with instructions on making your restaurant as eat it-and-beat-it as possible. The only art on the walls are a few unattractive framed pieces hung about 3 inches from the ceiling. The steam tables for the lunch buffet are pushed back along one wall, and the plate-glass windows offer a panoramic view — of an asphalt parking lot.
Saffron is tucked into an utterly forgettable brown-concrete shopping strip south of the Zona Rosa complex. So forgettable, in fact, that it remains not so easy to find even once you've been there. And the landmarks to help orient you are a little sad: a Motel 6 and the raucous blue-collar saloon called Dirks. Look for those businesses, though, and you'll know where to turn on Prairie View Road. The first time I ventured out to find the restaurant, I got lost twice and when I finally parked in front of the place, I thought, "Where the hell am I?"
Despite its assault on my eyes and my odometer, Saffron allayed some of my concerns the moment I stepped though its front door. I was instantly enveloped in the comforting fragrances of cumin, garlic, ginger and cayenne. A restaurant that smells delicious is always a good sign, even if it's in the Twilight Zone.
Singh and Kaur, natives of the Punjab region of India, moved to Kansas City last year from Las Vegas because they wanted to open their own restaurant. Singh had been working as a cook in the notorious city of high rollers and cheap buffets, helping make Northern Indian cuisine in one such low-stakes culinary outpost. He knew Sin City would be prohibitively expensive if he wanted to run his own business, so his ears perked up when family members in Kansas City suggested that the couple look around this city's Northland. "My husband came and liked this location," Kaur says. "And we moved here."
Saffron is still a work in progress. Singh has applied for a liquor license (right now the most intoxicating beverage on the menu is a cold mango lassi) and hopes to offer Kalyani Black Label beer (a good complement to his curry dishes) before the end of the year. The buffet offered during lunch hours is well-stocked, but the regular menu items aren't available then; Saffron is menu-only after 5 p.m., with no buffet.
No one is going to confuse Saffron with the more glamorous and sophisticated Swagat restaurant a few blocks away, in the Zona Rosa shopping complex, though the newer venue's name has an ambitiously luxe quality. (Saffron is the world's most expensive spice.) The young owners didn't choose it, though. "One of our investors liked the name," Kaur tells me. "Our English is not very good yet."
But they're trying to learn. Singh steps out of the kitchen frequently during the evening to greet customers. He's a bit reserved, not nearly as chatty and gregarious as his wife, but he's friendly and eager to get feedback about his dishes, most of which are from traditional Northern Indian recipes. And Singh and Kaur have a communication asset in the brassy local waitress they've hired, Christina, a physical-education student at Park University who is one part Bette Midler, one part Naomi Judd and two parts Ethel Merman. She's articulate about every dish on the menu and not shy about making recommendations. "Why order the plain naan bread," she told me one night, "when you can get the kabuli naan baked with nuts, cherries, raisins and coconut? And what you don't eat with your dinner, you can take home and heat up for breakfast in the morning. It's the best breakfast bread ever." Sold.
The breads at Saffron are indeed tasty. My favorite might be the "special" version, filled with finely chopped paneer cheese, garlic and onion. It's a little greasier than traditional tandoori-baked concoctions, and the better for it. In contrast, the poori — big, golden balloons of deep-fried whole-wheat dough — is the least oily version of this bread I've tasted in the metro. It's absolutely delicious with a spoonful of Singh's sag paneer, a silky blend of creamed spinach and house-made cheese, and a dollop of Saffron's neon-green, slightly sweet mint chutney.
And a dollop might be all you get — Saffron is a little stingy with its condiments. I had to practically beg for a bit of onion chutney, and all the house chutneys and the shiny tamarind sauce are served in Lilliputian cups not much more voluminous than a jigger. For some reason, though, the cup of yogurt raita that I received one evening could have fed a family of 10.
So Singh and Kaur are on a learning curve with Saffron. But you can't help but want them to succeed. I hope that they stop frying the vegetable pakoras past the point of petrification, which seems easy enough. But they need not tinker with the vegetable samosas, which are glorious, the delicate pastry crust almost bursting with a smooth stuffing of seasoned potatoes and peas.
"Almost bursting" sums up the dinners at Saffron. Here, the greatest hits of the Northern Indian culinary repertoire are attractively presented and reasonably priced and generously portioned. The six combination dinners include bread, raita and a mildly spiced dal, the thick lentil stew that's delicious spooned over rice or a puffy wedge of naan.
The vegetable platter — served thali-style, as a palette of little dishes (in this case the creamy sag paneer, the tender cauliflower aloo gobi, and spiced garbanzo beans), with dal, bread and saffron-spiced basmati rice — is an appealing way to sample several meatless choices at once. As with another of the combination dinners (a sizzling, white-hot metal platter heaped with fiery, red tandoori-baked chicken and minced lamb sausages, chopped onions and peppers), it's a big meal with more than enough here for two patrons to share.
All of Saffron's dishes can be ordered with three degrees of spiciness: regular, medium and very. A better translation might be not spicy, kind of on the edge of spicy, and ow. If you'd like the lamb vindaloo to make your eyes water, then pick option three. Even the mildly spiced choices are flavorful, with the chicken tikka masala gorgeously buttery. The rogan josh, succulent lamb in a fragrant cinnamon and cardamom sauce, is outstanding. (There's a saffron-flavored ice cream, kulfi, for dessert, and it needs a little more saffron. Better is the much more intensely flavored mango version.)
The music I heard in the dining room on my visits ran from bouncy Bombay disco to Calcutta rap, a spectrum more adventurous than the cuisine. Among Singh and Kaur's challenges will be learning to narrow the gap between what's easy on the tongue and what's bland, and finding a spice level between "a little" and "too much." But when a place is named Saffron, and when it's run by people with good instincts, there's every reason to believe they'll conquer that learning curve and spice up the Northland.