At Saffron NOLA, the flavors and overarching theme are distinctly Indian, but there's a modern, refined undercurrent that gives nods to Southern ingredients and many international influences.
The venture is the Vilkhu family's first full-time restaurant, but for six years chef Arvinder Vilkhu served dinner on Fridays at the home of their West Bank catering operation. The menu is influenced by his Indian heritage and culinary ideas from Europe and Southeast Asia.
Saffron NOLA opened last year on Magazine Street in a space that was home to a series of restaurants. A stunning interior renovation imbues a warm, glowing and sultry ambience — a good precursor of what's in store when the food arrives.
The menu is divided into choti, or small plates, larger or badhi plates and roti sathi, or "bread companions," to the warm, chewy rounds of roti. The latter includes a selection of familiar Indian dishes, from the curried spinach dish saag paneer — a flavorful, inky dark green medley — to creamy stewed lentils (dal) and golden turmeric-tinged gobi, or cauliflower.
Across the menu, the chef reinvents and rethinks dishes with local roots, infusing them with Indian and Southeast Asian ingredients and techniques. A curried seafood gumbo is served with basmati rice, and the Indian answer to broiled Louisiana oysters arrives buttery and bubbling hot from the oven, topped with ginger, caramelized onions and garlic and served with puffy naan bread.
An earthy pork kabob sausage and sliced chicken pate form the backbone of a charcuterie plate served with herb-flecked, truffled naan. It comes with two delicious accoutrements: spicy pickled shrimp and smoky roasted eggplant dip.
The kitchen employs spice with a deft hand, allowing the subtle nuances of the ingredients to play off each other. Chicken lasooni features juicy hunks of tandoori-baked chicken with a blistered and crispy exterior and some spicy heat. It's served with smoky masala dipping sauce and gets a cooling, acidic nudge from pickled onions that carry both sweetness and a hint of cardamom.
Often, it's not one element or one ingredient but the harmony of several that makes a dish sing. With crabmeat pudha, golden wedges of lentil pancakes are subtly sweet, full of buttery morsels of lump crabmeat. But it's the accompanying sauces — a syrupy sweet date and tamarind chutney and a cooling mint chutney — that make the dish. On one chilly evening, seafood stew appeared as a menu special. Shrimp, oysters and scallops bobbed on the surface of a black pepper-coconut broth, and the warm and comforting dish had a light and grassy quality, despite the richness of its ingredients.
Attention to detail extends to the dessert and drink menus, where original creations are accented with chai spices, saffron, cardamom, curry leaves, rose syrup and more.
The space can get loud quickly, especially on busy evenings, which increasingly are the norm. It's not hard to see why. What started as a weekly occasion has evolved into one of the city's most exciting restaurants.