A large black Mercedes swoops to the curb while I'm trying to hand my keys to the valet in front of Saffron, the new Moroccan restaurant next door to Mia Bella on Lexington. The valet ignores me while he attends to the driver of the luxury sedan, a beautiful woman in a long black coat. Her garb seems odd, considering the 90-degree weather. She zips into Saffron while I stand there waiting.
A few minutes later, my dining companion and I are knocking back some cocktails and munching on appetizers when I see the woman again, this time wearing considerably less clothing. Turns out she's the belly dancer. She starts her routine, and I figure the polite thing to do is check out her curves. She and I trade big smiles while my dining companion rolls her eyes from behind her avocado martini.
A cocktail list created by the chef to complement the menu is one of the best new ideas in the restaurant business. Saffron's winner in the unique cocktail contest is the almond milk martini, which has an aroma like marzipan and goes great with the spicy appetizers. The pompar martini, a frozen pomegranate-and-pear concoction, is a good bet for frozen margarita lovers. I wouldn't recommend the avocado martini, though; it's a sickly shade of pale green and tastes waxy.
A basket of Moroccan bread and an array of spreads including braised eggplant, marinated black olives, cucumber chutney and spicy tomato sauce is brought to your table as soon as you order. On this, our last visit to Saffron, we also sample the orange salad, which turns out to be a refreshing plate of wheel-shaped orange slices, baby greens and pecans tossed with vinaigrette and dusted with cinnamon.
I'm occasionally distracted as the dancer threads her way among the tables and into the dark bar, which is fronted by carved wood arches. The restaurant is lavishly decorated with folding screens, hanging mirrors and picture frames carved in the intricate and elaborate patterns unique to Moroccan woodwork. The wooden front door is an architectural antique imported from Morocco. The walls are painted in saffron-inspired reds and yellows, and the furniture includes oversize hand-carved armchairs.
There are two women in their early twenties seated in armchairs at the next table, and I'm impressed that they've ordered "Moroccan delicacy pie" as their appetizer. I got the pie on my first visit, and I think it's the coolest thing on the menu. It's a phyllo popover stuffed with sautéed lamb livers, sweetbreads, mountain oysters and vermicelli, seasoned with a sauce of saffron and ginger. The result is a fascinating stew of bold flavors and wild textures in a flaky pastry crust.
The waitress asks the women what they thought of the pie, and one of them says, "It was different." I ask her if she knows what a mountain oyster is (it's a calf's testicle). She says she doesn't want to know. Saffron's appetizer menu also includes an unusual dish of sautéed sweetbreads and crunchy fava beans in a tangy ginger gravy.
Organ meats (a.k.a. delicacies, variety meats, offal) are much in vogue lately. London chef Fergus Henderson's famous cookbook, The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating, and its organ-friendly point of view are being championed in the United States by such culinary luminaries as Anthony Bourdain and Mario Batali. Batali, who is famous for using lamb's tongue, brain and other variety meats in his Italian cooking, says in a cover blurb that he shares Henderson's "disdain for the filet mignons and boneless chicken breasts of the world."
It was the organ meats and such intriguing dishes as rabbit tagine that first attracted me to Saffron. And in my three visits, I've been impressed by the food. The Moroccan flavor signature -- a blend of cumin, garlic, ginger, cinnamon and, of course, saffron -- is rich and spicy without being especially piquant.
The tagines are perhaps the most interesting dishes on Saffron's menu. A tagine is a conical Moroccan clay pot with a chimneylike lid. Meats and stews are traditionally slow-cooked in these unglazed vessels. Eventually the clay absorbs some of the tastes of the spices and imparts a flavor of its own.
Saffron's chicken tagine, a braised stew of tender chicken, black olives, potatoes and zesty preserved lemon, is delicately flavored and yet wonderfully rich. The Cornish hen tagine is nearly identical, except you get the whole bird. If you like sweeter flavors, try the lamb tagine with caramelized onions and sun-dried apricots in ginger broth.
My daughter pounced on the doggie bag when I got home from Saffron one night. As she devoured the contents, I asked her which dish she preferred. Interestingly, she liked the rabbit tagine more than the lamb in cinnamon-almond sauce over couscous. But, of course, as she pulled the long, stringy chunks of white meat from the bones and dipped them in the green herb sauce, she thought she was eating chicken.
The couscous dishes at Saffron are problematic. Real Moroccan couscous is cooked in a perforated steamer called a kiskis in Arabic or a couscousière in French. The instant couscous found in boxes on the shelves of American grocery stores is made by adding hot water. But such instant couscous is to real couscous what Minute Rice is to real rice. While steamed couscous is fluffy and starchy, instant couscous has a gritty texture. If you use too much water, it turns into an unappealingly wet mess.
A manager came to our table during the meal and asked if everything was all right. I assume he was the owner, Youssef Nafaa, who was born in Morocco and also owns Mia Bella. I asked him if the kitchen is steaming the couscous in a special pot or just adding hot water to the instant variety. He said they were just adding hot water. As the soupiness at the bottom of the dish reveals, they aren't even making the instant couscous properly.
Instant couscous figures into an overall dilemma at Saffron. Your waitperson encourages you to eat with your hands Moroccan-style at the beginning of the meal, and hot towels are delivered to your table so you can wash up. But while most of the appetizers are well suited for hand delivery to the tongue, the entrées are not. The couscous is particularly annoying. Every time I tried to pick some up with my fingers and lift it into my mouth, I showered the front of my shirt with the stuff.
I asked Nafaa how to eat couscous with your hands. He told me you are supposed to roll some around in your palm until it forms a ball. I think this feat would be possible with the slightly sticky texture of steamed couscous, but it's utterly impossible with instant. My dining companion attempted to follow his instructions after Nafaa left. She ended up with what looked like a glove made of Cream of Wheat. And then she was left with two equally unattractive alternatives: Go to the bathroom and wash the food away, or remove it with her tongue. Much to my amusement, she chose the latter.
"Moroccans let their food sit out all day and eat it at room temperature," one waiter at Saffron told us. You can eat the appetizers at Saffron with your hands, but it's probably not a good idea to try to eat the hot entrées that way, he said. Take his advice: Ask for a fork and knife.
If Saffron's approach to utensil-less dining is frustratingly ambiguous, their ideas about seating are even worse. It's also traditional in Morocco to sit on the floor and eat at a low table. In deference to this custom, many of the tables in the dining room are lower than normal and surrounded by upholstered cubes. But unfortunately, the tables have an iron bar about six inches below the top, which prevents you from getting your knees underneath. After a few drinks, you find yourself unable to lean back and relax since there's no backrest. The result is a dining room full of people slumping in awkward and uncomfortable postures. Opt for the carved armchairs if you're given a choice.
After the cocktails and appetizers during our final dinner at Saffron, I figure I should give equal time to some of the more normal entrées. So I order the straightest thing I can find, two rosy-pink lamb chops with a caramelized roasted onion and tomato flecked with cumin on the side. It is exquisite. My dining companion gets the comforting braised chicken, which is served with lots of gravy over Moroccan bread. Together, the falling-apart chicken in spicy gravy and the doughy, soft bread taste like a North African version of chicken and dumplings.
The belly dancer stops by our table one last time, and I stuff a dollar bill in her waistband, although judging by her car, she needs the money less than I do. I'm rewarded for my tip with an impressive display of ample fanny oscillation. I mention to my dining companion, who is looking for a job, that she might consider this apparently lucrative field herself.
Belly dancers, exotic cocktails and an assortment of delicacies make Saffron one of the most exciting new restaurants to open in the city this year. With a few logistical adjustments to the silverware and seating, it could also become one of the most popular.
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