Dining Outside at Saffron
Owner Ajay Walia can’t help but chuckle these days when patrons — and even long-time regulars — walk past his Saffron restaurant in San Carlos, only to back-peddle in a double-take.
Like some other establishments, Walia decided to use the time during the pandemic when his 19-year-old restaurant wasn’t operating at full capacity to refresh its look.
The result is night and day. The once near-black exterior is now bright white. The interior, once much more traditional in vibe with gold and saffron-hued walls, is now as crisp and fresh looking as a starched summer shirt with white walls and banquettes, and loads of greenery. With so many of us spending time in our own backyards during lock-down, Walia says he was inspired to bring the outdoors in.
If you’re like me and still only dining outdoors at the moment, though, you’ll be glad to know that Saffron also has a few tables outside its front doors. That’s where I parked myself when I was invited to dine as a guest last week.
Walia, who also owns Michelin-starred Rasa in Burlingame, has updated Saffron’s menu, even going so far as to do away with the restaurant’s long-time buffet, to concentrate on quality rather than quantity. I’d say the food’s never been better.
The restaurant has added a selection of fun, non-alcoholic beverages to satisfy a growing interest in zero-proof drinks. The pudeena kheera thanda ($8) is a cucumber refresher with mint, simple syrup and soda water. It’s reminiscent of spa water, but far more substantial in quenching cucumber flavor.
Enjoy it with kale pakora ($9), crunchy green fritters with tangy-sweet tamarind chutney; and amritsari macchi ($12), warmly spiced fried fish nuggets that are wonderfully flaky and moist within. This North India dish comes complete with cilantro chutney and crisp daikon slaw. It’s the first fish dish offered on the menu at Saffron, and it’s destined to be a classic for sure.
Those two dishes are under the “small” plates section of the menu, as is lamb kofte ($15), tender meatballs seasoned with shallots and garlic that are afloat in a spicy, sweet tomato sauce that you’ll want to sop up with some baked-to-order garlic naan ($5) that arrives warm, soft and flecked with cilantro.
To refresh the palate, try Saffron’s version of chopped salad ($12). It’s a lightly dressed jumble of crisp romaine in tamarind vinaigrette with kale, carrots, cucumbers, radish, almonds, and raisins with golden little kale fritters standing in for croutons.
From the tandoori oven, the shrimp ($14) are a must-order. They arrive plump and smoky tasting, with garnishes of pickled cauliflower.
Also not to be missed is the “Old Delhi-Style Butter Chicken” ($20), which is Walia’s recreation of a beloved dish from his childhood in India. The first thing you notice is the color of the ample sauce — not yellow mustard-hued like other butter chicken, but vivid orange-red instead. That’s because Old Delhi-style eschews the heavy cream for a lot more tomato instead, creating a sauce that’s incredibly rich in flavor but not overly rich and heavy. The second thing you notice is the taste — incredibly deep and smoky from the chicken being charred before added to the sauce. The lacy, thin handkerchief roomali roti ($5) is exactly what you want for dipping into the bright, smooth sauce, which frankly, I just wanted to drink with a spoon.
Traditional lamb curry ($20) is a nice counterpart, more traditional tasting with lamb leg braised slowly with onions, tomatoes, and a bevy of Indian spices until you barely need to take a knife to it.
Jafrani kofta curry ($18) are like little cheese dumplings that reveal a pillowy center of ricotta-like paneer. They’re simmered in a tomato-onion sauce made extra creamy with cashews.
For vegetarians and vegans, Saffron now offers its four vegan dishes as sides ($8-$9), so it’s easy to choose two or three in combination for more variety as an entree.
For dessert, there’s rasmalai, saffron-scented, soft, slightly crumbly milky curds formed into discs served chilled in a pool of sweetened milk; and classic sweet, creamy rice pudding with chopped pistachios and fresh strawberries strewn overtop.
Saffron is also experimenting with selling scratch-made Indian snacks, such as besan burfi balls. Made with sugar syrup, ghee, pistachios and roasted chickpea flour, they have a dry texture and taste as delightful as peanut butter. Walia, who grew up snacking on these as a kid, likens them to an Indian version of a Clif bar.
There are also squares of cardamom-flecked kalakund, that’s like cheesecake, only made with paneer instead.
The snacks are sometimes available to order on the to-go menu. Otherwise, when you dine in person and check out the new look of the restaurant, just inquire with your server if any are available that day.