Dining Outside at Saffron in Burlingame, Né Rasa

India meets China in General Tso's cauliflower at Saffron in Burlingame.
India meets China in General Tso’s cauliflower at Saffron in Burlingame.

At this Burlingame spot, you will find a refashioned brighter interior, an added parklet, a new menu and name change, and owner Ajay Walia no longer greeting you in a sharp suit, but casual shirt and slacks.

In June, Walia closed his former Michelin-starred, fine-dining Rasa on this property, and morphed it into the second outpost of his Saffron (the original is in San Carlos). It was a difficult decision, he says, but one necessitated by the challenges of the pandemic.

Yet despite the transformation, Walia doesn’t believe anything is radically different.

“We’re still buying the same ingredients, and cooking with the same standards,” he says. “The only thing that has changed is people’s expectations.”

A feast al fresco.
A feast al fresco.

Indeed, when I was invited in as a guest of the restaurant last week to dine outside, I found the food as delightful as ever.

The dishes still lean toward Southern India. And there are a few Rasa favorites still available, including a range of dosas, as well as Malabar shrimp masala, and chicken biryani.

The new parklet in front of the restaurant.
The new parklet in front of the restaurant.

But there are also Northern Indian dishes long popular at Saffron, including the signature makhani daal, lavishly creamy black lentils simmered for 24 hours with tomatoes and spices, and finished with homemade butter. Even my husband, aka Meat Boy, couldn’t get enough of these flavorful, earthy lentils, so you know just how good they must be then.

The signature, long-cooked black lentils, plus coconut rice (back).
The signature, long-cooked black lentils, plus coconut rice (back).
The Aama Sutra, garnished with fresh mango.
The Aama Sutra, garnished with fresh mango.

Summer was made for the Aama Sutra ($19), a mezcal and mango cocktail with the lilt of smoke from lava salt on the rim and a hint of heat from grilled jalapeno. Fruity cocktails can sometimes be too sweet for my liking, but the mango in this one did not overwhelm, but rounded out everything.

From the small plates section of the menu, the General Tso’s cauliflower ($14) will rev the taste buds with its blend of Indian and Chinese sensibilities. Fried, breaded florets are doused in a sweet, moderately spicy tomato chili sauce, and finished with chives and sesame seeds. It’s like sweet-and-sour pork meets cauliflower.

The surprising Mangalore fried chicken.
The surprising Mangalore fried chicken.

The look of the Mangalore fried chicken ($15) is wholly unexpected. They arrive on the plate square-shaped, almost resembling big fried ravioli. But take a bite and you get crisp, juicy thigh meat in a seasoned breading made for dunking into lime-chili yogurt. Underneath the chicken are coveted crisp wispy bits of red onion, chard, and fennel worth relishing all on their own.

The moon bean pessarattu brings a tender, spongy dosa filled with mung beans, and shredded carrots and Brussels sprouts alongside a lively gingery chutney. It’s one of several vegetarian dishes available.

Mung bean dosa.
Mung bean dosa.

From the main courses, the ODS Butter Chicken is a must-order. This Old Delhi-style chicken dish is based on one Walia grew up with, and it’s long been a signature at Saffron. This saucy, marinated chicken is hidden underneath a generous pool of creamy tomato-fenugreek curry. It’s the heightened smokiness that really makes this dish special, adding incomparable depth to the rich sauce that’s so addictive that you’ll want to order fluffy coconut rice ($6), flaky whole-wheat tandoori roti ($5) or yellow-tinged, buttery garlic naan ($6) to sop up every drop.

The ODS butter chicken.
The ODS butter chicken.

Leg of lamb is braised slowly until tender in a curry made with 21 spices ($26). It’s a homey, comforting dish that is not spicy, but fragrantly spiced.

Garlic naan garnished with cilantro.
Garlic naan garnished with cilantro.
Lamb curry with roti (back).
Lamb curry with roti (back).

For a showstopping dessert, Saffron has partnered with the Bay Area’s Hetal Vasavada, creator of the Milk & Cardamom blog, and “Milk & Cardamom” cookbook (Page Street Publishing, 2019) on the kesar pista cream puffs ($12).

Three come to an order, each one adorned with a different hued, crisp craquelin topper, giving them the look of mini Mexican conchas. Spices from the East Bay’s specialty purveyor, Diaspora Co., star in the saffron and pistachio chantilly cream filling within. Fresh berries, a swipe of chocolate sauce, and a sprinkle of chopped pistachios complete the dish.

Cream puffs nearly too pretty to eat.
Cream puffs nearly too pretty to eat.

At this Burlingame establishment, the more things change, the more they stay the same — and that’s reason to cheer.

More: Dining Outside at Saffron in San Carlos

And A Hetal Vasavada Recipe to Try: Caramelized White Chocolate and Toasted Milk Cookies

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