The next time you feel like complaining about how much you hate your job, consider this: In La Mancha, Spain, hundreds of people spend their eight hours a day hunched over, painstakingly plucking stigmas from Crocus sativus flowers one teeny, precious thread at a time.
It takes about two weeks of picking and approximately 64,000 flowers to come up with a pound of saffron. Despite all the incredible technological advances out there--Chia herb gardens, salad spinners--no one's managed to build a machine that can pull the three stigmas that each saffron flower offers, at least not without tearing the threads or mangling the flowers. As a result, saffron is the most expensive spice in the world--around $1,356 per pound for decades now--and probably the single most expensive cooking ingredient as well.
Since the spice is so rare, it's fitting that it lends its name to another precious commodity: Saffron, a warm, upscale ethnic restaurant in Englewood, of all places. This elegant eatery boasts a sophisticated and stylish dining room (the elaborately woven floor-length draperies on the front windows almost make you forget you're eating in a strip mall), noteworthy service, consistently excellent food--and prices low enough to make you wonder if a bunch of former saffron pickers are manning the kitchen.
But no, it's chef Mohammed Risati, known to regulars--and they are legion--as Chef Mo. He's been creating his contemporary Mediterranean-with-a-Middle-Eastern-focus dishes since Saffron opened twelve years ago; when the original owners sold the restaurant last summer, he and his helper, chef Abdul Dabiri, decided to stay on, as did most of the rest of the staff. It was a smart move: The new owner is Manijeh Sadegh, who earned an excellent reputation with her transformation of the House of Kabob from a skanky hole-in-the-wall into a charming Persian restaurant. And so far, the only noticeable changes she's made at Saffron are welcome additions: a few of her Persian specialties on the menu and her gracious, welcoming demeanor at the hostess station.
The food is as exquisite as the surroundings and the service. We started with the zoleka ($7.50), a Moroccan appetizer that's on the menu because Chef Mo loves it. And there was a lot to love: The eggplant puree contained plenty of garlic, a touch of cumin and, of course, saffron, which is used rather liberally in this kitchen. To set off the acidic flavors, Chef Mo spooned a pool of thinned yogurt into a well in the center of the mushy eggplant, then added slices of crusty French bread for scooping. Another appetizer was more refined and even more appealing--if oddly named. The mushroom provolone ($7.50) was not the Italian-style platter of oily 'shrooms smothered in cheese that you might expect from its name but rather an intensely flavored mess of fungi sauteed in red wine, garlic and copious amounts of basil until the sauce had been reduced into a delectable goo. The provolone amounted to a thin drizzling around the edge of the platter, and when by chance a dab of the cheese oozed into the sauce, well, I just wish I knew the Iranian phrase for "Mama mia."
The tournedos Natasha ($18.95), four unbelievably soft and tender broiled beef medallions, came awash in another transcendent sauce reduced to the same consistency, this one a peppercorn-brandy version sparked with pepper and studded with sun-dried tomatoes and artichoke hearts. This delightful dish was made even better with sides of steamed vegetables and saffron rice made the traditional Persian way: rinsed, soaked, boiled and then steamed. I'd always thought it was impossible to get authentic Persian rice here in the States--my understanding was that the amount that grows along the Caspian Sea is so small that there's never enough rice to export, so you usually have to settle for the next best thing, which is Indian basmati specifically from Pakistan--but Chef Mo insists he's using the real deal. The result is incredible chewy-tender rice with enough saffron added to give it a beautiful color and that characteristically perfumey flavor. (A tip from Chef Mo: He soaks the saffron in a tiny bit of hot water and adds that to the water in which he steams the rice.)
More rice and veggies came with the barg kabob ($16.95), one of Sadegh's recipes from House of Kabob. Although I wouldn't have thought it possible, these skewered slices of filet were even more tender than the tournedos. Chef Mo used his standard marinade--olive oil, saffron, onion, parsley and plain yogurt--to punch up the beef flavor, then broiled the meat until it was barely done and paired it with a yogurt dipping sauce.
After two such successful courses, I was willing to even give Saffron's baqlawa ($4.25) a try, although I've always thought Persian baklava was dry and bland. Baklava is really a Greek pastry, but its popularity has spread throughout the Middle East; the Persian version uses more nuts and little or no honey, taking its moisture from rosewater instead. Perhaps I've had too many gooey, sticky baklavas that sent me swooning into sugar shock to truly appreciate such an austere variation, but I found Saffron's huge, dull triangles too boring to bother with. We'd also ordered the chocolate-raspberry torte ($4.25) and were sorry to get only a skinny sliver of the decadent confection. And the kitchen was completely out of the chocolate mousse with pistachio.
So we had to return, of course. On a second visit, the feast started with a dish called Alishia ($7.95), an innocent-sounding name for a sinful collection of sea scallops and plush chicken pieces sauteed in a cream sauce whose richness was cut by jalapenos. There was nothing to cut the richness of the sauce on the escargot ($8.95), six snails soaked through with buttery goodness, wearing little mushroom caps that had been topped with fresh spinach.
After all that, we thought a salad might be in order, and the Persian ($6.95) was exactly what the doctor ordered. Fresh cucumbers, tomatoes, chopped lettuce, feta, stuffed grape leaves and kalamatas had been lightly coated with one of the best balsamic vinaigrettes I've ever tasted. The balsamic-vinegar craze has convinced too many cooks that more is better; that's rarely the case with the balsamic available in this country. (The stuff aged for a century or so in Italy is a different story--that balsamic is much sweeter and far less acerbic.)
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Next up: More saffron, in the form of the saffron chicken ($13.95), a whole chicken breast split in half and covered with a well-melded white-wine sauce (see Mouthing Off for the recipe). The mushroom-enhanced sauce on the chicken schnitzel ($14.50), Chef Mo's take on the German classic, was another impressive concoction. Beneath the sauce was an unusually thin breading that covered chicken meat made tart and tender by Chef Mo's marinade. Still no chocolate mousse with pistachio, though.
Although those two meals were enough to convince me that Saffron was indeed a rare find, I simply had to return. I had yet to taste the shikrazi ($4.50), a simple salad of evenly diced cucumbers, tomatoes and red onion in a mildly vinegary liquid, or the spinach salad ($7.50), fresh spinach tossed with succulent poached salmon and shrimp in a perfectly balanced raspberry and orange vinaigrette. I'd also been dying to try the lamb shank ($15.95), and the dish proved worth the wait. The drippy meat arrived barely clinging to the bone and draped with a pungent, faintly sweet curry cream sauce. And the odd-sounding scallops zinfandel ($16.95) turned out to be a delightful pile of broiled, caramelized-edge sea scallops drenched with a red-wine sauce sweetened with roasted red peppers.
Still no chocolate mousse, though.
So I'll heading back to Saffron any day now. Restaurants this rare are truly the spice of life.
Saffron, 6600 South Quebec Street, Englewood, 303-290-9705. Hours: 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m., 5:30-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m., 5:30-10 p.m. Friday; 5:30-10 p.m. Saturday.