Our city already has a lot of good neighborhood Indian spots (Kinaara is one I like) and a couple of higher-end choices (Jaipur is one I like, too.)
When you first arrive at Saffron, and take in the upscale, jewel-toned decor, the craft cocktail list and the extensive wine list, you might sense what they’re going for. You’ll notice a few trendy twists on the menu, including a plate of masala-spiced crab cakes and naan filled with a creamy spinach artichoke dip. All that struck me as both fun and modern.
But Saffron also serves its own thoughtful, well-executed versions of the classics you think you already know. For this diner, that’s when things got really interesting.
Take the matar paneer, one of my go-to dishes at any Indian restaurant, made with cubes of paneer cheese and a thick korma sauce studded with green peas.
At Saffron, the paneer is homemade, and the chunks are double the size I’m used to. The curry had plenty of spice and the right amount of heat, the peas snapped with freshness. The entire dish is heavily scented with garam masala, a spice blend generally made with black peppercorns, mace, cinnamon, cloves, black cardamom, nutmeg and green cardamom.
I’ll return to Saffron, truly, for this one dish. It’s outstanding.
Chef and co-owner Diwesh Bhattarai opened Saffron in partnership with Sagar Gurung, who runs Omaha’s two Kathmandu Momo Stations in Aksarben and Blackstone. Bhattari’s wife, Aagya Subedi Bhattarai, makes the Burmese ramen, among other dishes, at the Momo stations.
Bhattarai has cooked in two other Indian kitchens in Omaha. He wanted to open his own spot, Gurung said, because he had some new ideas he hoped to test out, including more of those twists on Indian classics. Starting this fall, Saffron will also offer reservation only, seafood-heavy tasting menu experiences with wine pairings. The first will be in partnership with guest chef Kane Adkisson.
Bhattarai is from Butwal, Nepal, a border town near India. Growing up, he ate a lot of Indian street food, and it’s that cuisine that inspires him now. Gurung said the menu will morph significantly in the coming months.
There are hints of the changes to come already, like those masala crab cakes. We ended up sampling them twice; the second time they were better than the first. The masala flavor is subtle but there, and there’s plenty of fresh crab meat involved. A cool, sweet yogurt sauce provided a nice contrast. I wished for the exterior to be slightly crisper, and that’s the detail that set the second plate apart.
One night, I tried the special, a yellow goa curry with grilled shrimp. This version of goa curry was mild and sweet, made with onions and amchur powder, which adds a note of sour. Six sizable shrimp arrived nicely cooked and seasoned. I look forward to trying more of Bhattarai’s seafood when the tasting menu launches.
That same evening we also tried another classic, chicken korma. The flavor of the sauce at Saffron is great, but our chunks of white meat chicken had a tough chewiness that we did not love. It was the only real misstep we experienced.
Contrast that with our next visit, when we ordered another favorite, the tandori half chicken. This time, the chicken was so tender that it dripped off the bone, and even the white meat had a juicy, flavorful finish. The half bird had wonderfully charred edges and a side of tikka korma sauce for dipping, if you wish.
Saffron makes wonderful basmati rice, and doesn’t skimp on the portion served with the meal. Each visit, we had plenty to take home and eat with our leftovers later.
Entrees come with either a side salad or a cup of Mulligatawny soup, and neither are an afterthought. I loved the creamy salad dressing spiked with plenty of mint. The soup would be wonderful on a cold winter day, with its rich, warm spices. Don’t forget to hit it with a squirt from the lemon sitting on the side of the saucer.
That spinach artichoke naan is a bit blasphemous but also really delicious, and the flavor and crisp edges of the bread pair perfectly with the rich, decidedly American dip that fills the center.
We tried two other appetizers on the happy hour menu: vegetable samosas come filled with a savory, chunky potato filling with an exterior fried to crisp. Over the top are drizzles of both a thick, sweet tamarind sauce and a delicious mint chutney, which also accompanies the naan.
The keema paratha comes stuffed with a heavily spiced ground beef filling and a chewy, deeply savory finish. More mint chutney is a nice compliment.
We tried a few cocktails, including the Mumbai, an interesting play on a classic, and a nicely executed classic Manhattan. In many Indian restaurants, the bar is a spot for administrative work and service, not a place to hang out. The bar at Saffron, which is called Bombay, is meant to have its own identity, and be a full service area of the restaurant. To that end, the owners gave it a separate social media account and plan to continue to beef up its menu.
As Saffron continues to morph its menu from traditional Indian to creative tasting menu, and launches its full craft bar program, I think it will end up finding a singular spot in the Omaha dining scene. It’s one that can offer both a new perspective out of the kitchen and a fully new experience for diners
Saffron Urban Indian Kitchen
6706 Frances St.