I had twice eaten the cooking of Saffron – brainchild of the husband and wife team of Arvinder "Dickey" Vilkhu and Pardeep Vilkhu – when I was welcomed back to the restaurant to ask them some follow-up questions about a dinner this past Friday. I was surprised with a tasting menu of some of the most ridiculously delicious Indian food I’ve had in Louisiana.
While enjoying a history lesson concerning the nine years of formal catering and the 21 years the couple has been cooking food for friends and family, I was served Aloo Tikkie, a typical food you can find today on the streets of New Delhi, India, where Arvinder was born and raised. The dish is comprised of two delicately pan-fried patties of potatoes stuffed with a spicy cumin-and-peas filling, and complemented by mint and tamarind chutneys. The dish had a mild heat from the mint chutney, made in house by Pardeep (and which will soon be available for sale from the restaurant and on their website). The heat in the chutney comes from a Kashmir cayenne pepper that has a markedly different heat signature from Louisiana cayenne pepper – instead of the heat originating on the tip of your tongue, it blossoms on the back of your tongue after a few bites (but never overwhelms your palate).
I was enjoying the Aloo Tikkie along with a martini made with Moon Mountain organic vodka flavored with ginger and apple liqueurs; the ginger and the organic vodka wonderfully compliment the appetizer. This attention to detail really punctuates the overall experience of eating the food at Saffron; everything is done with an eye to perfection.
The basis of the food at Saffron obviously originates in Indian cooking but has infused into its recipes the tastes of New Orleanian, French, Italian and Spanish cooking techniques, making their dishes unique.
Arvinder has been running a private club in New Orleans for the past 24 years and so has ample service industry and kitchen experience which he has brought together along with his personal experiences growing up in India to make the menu of Saffron a knock-out.
Pardeep is a recently retired psychologist, who until 2010 worked with Metropolitan Developmental Center, providing for the mental health needs of Orleans, Plaquemine and St. Bernard parishes. With no formal training in cooking, she has a lifetime of personal experiences in Indian cuisine, from Kenya (where she was born), New Delhi and New Orleans. While Saffron has been officially catering events since 2003, the in-house dining unofficially began after Katrina and the reaction from their friends was so positive that after Pardeep retired, they were able to open the restaurant in January at 505 Gretna Blvd. on the West Bank.
Arvinder and Pardeep make all the sauces and chutneys themselves, and Arvinder does front of house while Pardeep expedites. The team of chefs on call for the restaurant and catering events in the kitchen for Saffron hail from such diverse places as The Intercontinental, the New Orleans Lawn Tennis Club and Southern Yacht Club. The level of talent in the kitchen comes across clearly in the quality of the food served.
Unfortunately, Saffron is only open for dinner on Friday nights. The chefs still need to provide for their regular clientele (for their catering business), and remain busy much of the rest of the week.
Arvinder summed up the ethos behind Saffron: "You can tell that the creativity of the restaurant menu is based on the person who is in the kitchen who has a background, not only culinary experience but also academic experience in the field, once you go through both you develop the ability to use the authenticity of the food and at the same time come up with your own version of the sauces. You will not find these (dishes) in India."
On my Friday night dining experience at Saffron, a salmon compote with crackers came out as lagniappe as the start to the meal. What impressed me the most about the compote was the subtle hints of Indian spices which never sought to compete with the natural flavors of the fresh salmon, just acting to accentuate the fish. As a big fan of ceviche, and a frequenter of most restaurants that serve it well in New Orleans (Rio Mar, Barcelona Tapas, Vega Tapas, to name a few), this off-menu compote was a contender to hang with the best in the Greater New Orleans area.
Another entree brought out for the tasting menu was an item I had before at a catering event, Khyber Pass Lamb Chops, seared lambchops with a homemade rogan josh sauce, which is onions, ginger, garlic, tomato, meat stock and cashews. The flavor was dark and smokey, and the origin to the tenderness and sweetness of the meat was revealed to me when Arvinder told me they marinate the lambchops in dark rum for 24 hours before grilling them medium rare. Khyber Pass is an area presently located in Pakistan, but the tastes of the recipe predates the British partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. This dish is a regular on the menu, and a must-have.
Two vegetarian sides were brought out as well – the Eggplant Hyderabad and the Stuffed Zucchini Bake Delhi. The interior of the Stuffed Zucchini is scooped out and recombined with lentil flour, yogurt, tomatoes, onions, raisins and cashew nuts and restuffed and baked. The eggplant contained an Indian cheese with tamarind, peanuts and coconut sauce and is then oven-roasted. Both dishes are smooth as butter, and have wonderfully complex flavor profiles. There are six dishes total just as vegetarian sides, and none of them are just steamed – one of the things the Vilkhus thought should definitely be part of Saffron was to give vegetarians some delicious and exciting options, and they’ve delivered.
To close out my tasting menu, I tried several of the ice creams on the menu at Saffron (fig, date and praline and the lychee and cherry), but the traditional Indian Ice Cream, the Kulfi, was the star.
Kulfi is composed of pistachios, rose syrup and saffron and the ice cream is made by reducing milk over several hours to a quarter of its volume before putting it in the ice cream machine. It’s finished with candied vermicelli noodles and the taste is sublime, not overly sweet; the savory pistachio flavor balances out the sweetness of the rose syrup and the saffron adds an elegance to the overall taste.
With only three experiences eating Saffron’s fare, I feel as though I still want to know so much more about the restaurant, since I haven’t yet had a single item I thought even had room for improvement in presentation or taste, and surely there must be one. When I asked Arvinder about this, he said that his approach to a menu item is that "the eyes look at it first, the nose comes second and the taste comes last (but not least)". The holistic approach to dining at Saffron is what I think will keep me coming again and again to eat there. Well, that and the Khyber Pass Lamb chops. Man, they’re good.