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Combining creativity and spices
For Indian food lovers in the know, the best-kept secret in town was for years Chef Arvinder Vilkhu’s Friday-only popup on the West Bank. With a decidedly festive, club-like atmosphere, dinner felt special not just because of the terrific food but also because of the sense of occasion and the hospitality of Vilkhu and his family, who play an integral role in its operation. Over the past six years this Friday-only restaurant generated a pent-up demand for access to his cuisine on a more accommodating schedule. This has now come to pass with the opening of Saffron NOLA on Magazine Street.
“The response has been terrific,” says Vilkhu of his new location. “Both from people who have never eaten with us before and people who have supported us over the years.”
MEET THE CHEFS
Saffron NOLA might be the new kid on the block, but chef/owner Arvinder Vilkhu has deep culinary roots in New Orleans. He came to New Orleans in 1984 to work at the Intercontinental Hotel and decided to make the city his new home after experiencing his first bowl of gumbo. The longtime manager of the Pickwick Club, Vilkhu has also operated his own successful catering company for the past 25 years. His business is a family affair, with his wife Pardeep, his daughter Pranita and his son Ashwin, who oversees the excellent cocktail and beverage program at Saffron.
The build-out, which took the better part of 2017, coalesced into an elegant, muted space divided between tables and sumptuously upholstered booths that help swallow the bustle and flow of this new hotspot. A plate-glass window presents a view down the line of the gleaming new kitchen. The menu is a mélange of dishes both time-tested at the Friday popup as well as ones new to this location. Vilkhu draws in part on his long years of catering experience to tailor the taste to visitors unfamiliar with the spices particular to Indian cuisine.
Notable too are the dishes drawing on New Orleans influences and ingredients, such as the Curried Seafood Gumbo which takes a familiar dish in an unfamiliar directions thanks to the inclusion of fresh curry leaves, fenugreek, chili pepper from Kashmir and more. “The fusion component of our menu allows us to make use of local ingredients, like oysters, and have our own charcuterie and sausages that use Indian spices and flavors,” Vilkhu points out. A case in point is his Oyster Bed Roast, which swaps Indian spices, garlic and ginger for the butter, Parmesan and bread crumbs typical to the dish. Another is the Tamarind Shrimp, inspired by the BBQ Shrimp cooked up by Paul Prudhomme back in his Commander’s days. Vilkhu’s version switches out tamarind for lemon and cracked black pepper to contribute the spiky heat.
Bread is an indispensable part of the Indian dining experience and Saffron offers two versions. The Naan, with its dough made with milk and yogurt, is cooked directly on the clay walls of the tandoor oven, drawing flavor from the clay and wood smoke. Roti, a whole wheat flatbread made with unleavened dough, is also made in-house on specialty equipment brought in from San Antonio. The roti can be enjoyed with an assemblage of accompaniments including the southern Indian-inspired Eggplant Hyderabad as well as the richly flavored Royal Paneer, daily Daal and more.
Interestingly, cuisine in India is entwined with health. Spices are not just for flavor, they also impart medicinal properties. “All medicine in India originally derived from these spices,” Vilkhu says, pointing out the anti-inflammatory properties of turmeric as an example. Perhaps the Western world is finally catching up; turmeric seems to be popping up everywhere. For those of us who prefer to drink our medicine, Saffron’s excellent beverage program, overseen by Vilkhu’s son Ashwin, makes copious use of spices and infusions in its creative cocktail menu.
Saffron NOLA, 4128 Magazine St., Uptown, 323-2626. Dinner Tues.,-Sat., Brunch Sun., Closed Mon., SaffronNola.com.
Interested in trying to cook Indian food on your own? Then check out International Market at 3940 Barron Street in Metairie, which puts a focus on Indian food, spices and ingredients. Alternatively if you love Indian food but don’t feel like cooking it, they have a huge collection of prepared and frozen foods as well as a robust vegetarian selection.