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.