A restaurant doesn’t require dozens of investors, a million-dollar build-out, high-profile address or architects regularly profiled in glossy magazines to serve thoughtful, quality dishes packed with flavor and narrative. We all know this; the tacos have taught us so. But in this perpetual boom town, it can sometimes be forgotten.
As rents increase throughout the city and skyrocket downtown, neighborhoods outside the city’s core stand to benefit from improved dining options. Though they don’t proliferate the city as of yet, restaurants like the moderately priced, modern Indian restaurant Saffron will anchor neighborhoods and draw diners from around town with cuisine that is worthy of the showcase addresses of many lesser restaurants.
The scene will flesh itself out — and if it does so with cuisines that stretch beyond Austin’s modern calling cards of New American, Mexican and barbecue, we will all benefit. I hope Saffron serves as a glimpse of our culinary future and not as a savory aberration.
Co-owners Thiniso Tashi and Rajesh Ghimire opened the restaurant in the standard-issue Northwest Hills strip mall about seven months ago, supplanting Indian Palace, which occupied the space for about a dozen years. Despite the similar subcontinent influences, the restaurants are entirely separate entities.
Tashi, who arrived in Austin about a year ago, was raised in Northeast India by a Tibetan father and Nepalese mother; his menu straddles Tibet and Nepal, with one foot in India and one in China.
My friend’s parents used to trick him into eating gobi Manchurian as a kid at weddings in Delhi. The persimmon-colored nobs of cauliflower resembled Indo-Chinese chicken. A tasty trick. The glistening Chinese-inspired vegetable dish at Saffron ($6) hummed with the seductive sting of red chilies soothed by a salty lacquer of soy.
You’ll find the influence of India’s neighbors on dishes like a chicken lollipop appetizer ($6), the fried, soy-marinated chicken winglets, a popular Kathmandu street food, shimmered with turmeric and red chili powder.
The menu features a Nepalese section, which includes homemade dumplings called momos. The pinched steamed pouches, cooled by a creamy sesame seed-based dipping sauce, cradled a mixture of minced vegetables ($8) and aromatic ground chicken ($9). An exceptional goat curry ($16) also nodded to Nepal, with slow-cooked, bone-in meat oozing its marrow into an intoxicating stew that’s breathy with a trio of cumin, cinnamon and garlic and unafraid to stand up to the traditionally gamey meat.
Saffron employs an Indian and Nepalese chef as well as a Kenyan-raised tandoori chef, who turns out glowing, supple shrimp ($16) and tender yogurt-marinated lamb chops ($19) buzzing with a masala blend of Indian spices.
The yogurt, like almost everything at Saffron, is made in-house, and the freshness and attention to detail were evident in dishes like saag paneer ($11). Baby spinach flexed its iron muscle, giving strength and character to the creamy cheese dish that can settle into one-note mush at other places.
Some may opt for comfort in the ubiquitous chicken tikka masala ($13) or lamb rogan josh ($14), but you’ll be rewarded for trying lesser known Indian dishes. Saffron’s achari chicken is the clubhouse leader for my favorite dish of the year. Tangy and spicy, the pliant cubed chicken arrived awash in a puckering sauce made of pickled and dried mangos, with fenugreek wrapping its sweet, nutty profile around notes of ginger, garlic and mustard.
At the other end of the spectrum, the deeply rooted Murgh shahi korma ($13) played creamy salve to the pickled chicken’s electric strut, with a rich sauce buttressed by pistachios and cashews and kissed with the sweetness of raisins. Both chicken dishes made for great sopping with soft and shiny garlic naan ($3) and herbaceous rosemary and cheese naan ($3).
Tashi leads an attentive service staff with personalities that range from charmingly oversized to reserved-but-friendly. He previously worked at a Japanese restaurant in New York City, where his career spanned 15 years. That piece of his resume probably influenced Saffron’s popular Bombay Brussels sprouts dish ($7). But the appetizer, one of the restaurant’s best, isn’t just lip service to a waning trend. Saffron revitalizes the near-exhausted dish, tossing the chaat masala-spiced vegetables in a tangy sauce sweetened with mango and tamarind.
The commonplace dish was a surprise at the restaurant that feels wholly new but one that hopefully represents an emerging trend.
3616 Far West Blvd. 512-241-1732, saffronaustin.com
Rating: 8.5 out of 10
Hours: Lunch: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily. Dinner: 5 to 9:30 p.m. daily.
Prices: Appetizers, $4-$8. Tandoori, $2-$19. Entrees, $11-$16.
What the rating means: The 10-point scale is an average of weighted scores for food, service, value, ambience and overall dining experience, with 10 being the best.
The Bottom Line: Saffron’s comittment to from-scratch cooking and complex flavors makes the modern Indian restaurant the best of its class in Austin.