New owner of Saffron Indian Cuisine keeps food quality high

Earlier this year, new people took over the ownership and management of Saffron Indian Cuisine, in The Center at Ten shopping center on Cantrell Road, just west of Interstate 430, Little Rock.

We didn’t get a chance to check out the new weekend lunch buffet, but the menus posted on Facebook look impressive.

We were able to peruse the menu, which has undergone some revisions, although the small handful of items that intrigued us the most were not available.

Fortunately, we have found acceptable compromises. The food was almost universally commendable; the service, even when it didn’t come down to what seemed downright sullen, maybe not so much.

Safran comfortably seats around 60 guests in a pleasant, if somewhat dark, atmosphere accentuated by South Asian music playing quite loudly over the sound system. The obligatory representation of the Taj Mahal is one of many works of art, which includes a striking portrait of a rooster on the far wall (between the dining room and the kitchen) near a framed proclamation stating that ” All meat is halal-certified, which means it adheres to Muslim dietary laws.

We found some intriguing items on the appetizer list, including the Duck Sarpotel ($8.95), described on the menu as “crispy duck, [with] roasted spices mashed in a chili garlic sauce served with paratha”, a type of Indian flatbread. Except – well, it was not available.

The kitchen, however, obtained good results on two starters available. The Paneer Chili ($10.95), crispy breaded paneer (an Indian variety of cottage cheese with a texture similar to tofu) tossed with onions and peppers in a mildly spicy chili sauce, was delicious, but not as delicious as the Chicken Mambari ($9.95), crispy sautéed chicken in a spicier chili sauce with chunks of celery and ginger. Both portions were large enough to serve as small entrees.

Intrepid Companion, continuing a personal investigation of area restaurant lentil soups, enjoyed this one ($4.49), labeled a house specialty on the menu, a little lighter in color than it we see normally and with a light touch of citrus.

Two tandoor menu items (the cylindrical clay or metal oven used in Indian roasting) particularly caught our fancy, one on each visit. Both were among the dishes that looked good on the images scrolling across the TV screen near the main entrance. (There should be a law or regulation or something that prohibits engaging customers in this way and not keeping the promise.)

◼️ The Peshawari Lamb Chop ($21.99), marinated rack of lamb, with fresh ginger juice, yogurt and spices. Our server told us some days that the lamb chops are just “not on the market” and advised us to call ahead next time and maybe we’d get lucky.

◼️ Whole Red Snapper ($19.99), made with roasted chili peppers, cumin, cilantro, and frozen yogurt (which our trusted online food source says is plain yogurt that has been whey-free). filtered through cheese or muslin – we learn something new every day.) It also looked particularly attractive in the photo. We were far too discouraged to know if we could try the alternative, a whole branzino.

We ended up choosing three dishes instead, served in little brass pots, which looked alike but of course didn’t taste the same, which we would order again, given the option:

◼️ Chicken Vindaloo ($13.95), cubed chicken in a concoction of garlic and vinegar (that’s the term on the menu) with smoked cloves and madras peppers. The chicken was tender – we had this dish with tender and/or dry chicken, and trust us, you don’t want that.

◼️ Irani Gosh ($15.95), chunks of lamb in a caramelized onion sauce with noticeable cardamom. The lamb, too, was surprisingly tender; we’ve had too many dishes at South Asian restaurants where the kitchen overcooked the lamb, so this was a pleasant surprise.

◼️ Tamilian Fish Curry ($14.95), reasonably chewy mahi-mahi chunks in a coconut cream sauce with curry leaves and tiny whole red chilies. (We spent some time separating the peppers which, of course, are the same color as the reddish-brown sauce, and so luckily avoided biting one.)

A striking portrait of a rooster occupies a position on the far wall (between the dining room and the kitchen) near a framed proclamation stating that “All meat is certified halal”. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Eric E. Harrison) On both visits we were not asked how spicy we wanted our dishes to be, which we consider a must in Indian restaurants, both as a measure of palate protection and because people’s preferences must be taken into account. As a result, while we enjoyed the dishes with the spice quotient we got, we might have preferred at least one of those dishes to be spicier. Or sweeter. Or at least had the option.

This was just one of the minor service issues we encountered. It took a long time for the single waiter to come and take our order, and he was a little less friendly about the process. He never asked if we wanted a drink other than water, which comes in a self-serve, well-chilled, pebble-textured bottle with a twist-on ceramic cap (similar to Dutch beer bottles ). We never had, although we saw it being brought to other tables, free papadam with or without chutney.

And we only saw the server at the beginning, to take our order, and at the end of the meal, to bring our check. For all other issues we dealt with the much nicer and helpful food runner.

We can, going back to our meal, recommend from the list of breads, Saffron’s Garlic Naan ($2.95), which, while not as crispy as one would have liked, was nicely garlic-crusted (another times, not to disparage other Indian restaurants in the area, but a lot of garlic naan seem to involve waving a clove of garlic in front of a piece of flatbread). And we particularly enjoyed Intrepid Companion’s choice, the Cheese Chilly Naan ($3.95), stuffed almost to the point of oozing with homemade spicy cheese with bits of green pepper.

When we finally found someone to order yogurt-based Mango Lassi ($3.50), it came in wine glasses with plastic straws that were ridiculously twice the height of the glass. We learned from the second visit to drink it without artificial aid.

Indian food with saffron

  • Address: Center at Ten, 12911 Cantrell Road, Little Rock
  • Hours: 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 5 p.m.-10 p.m. daily
  • Kitchen: Indian
  • Alcoholic beverages: wine and beer
  • Wheelchair access: Yes
  • Credit card: V, MC, D, AE
  • Information: (501) 313-5335;,
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