New Orleans, La. – You've had crab cakes and New Orleans-style BBQ shrimp before, but probably not the way they do them at Saffron NOLA.
These crab cakes are really pancakes made of soft, nutty-tasting lentil batter. And the sauce over the shrimp tastes buttery alright, but it's also jammy with a sweet-sour tamarind tang. Just like BBQ shrimp, you'll want to mop the plate with bread, though here that bread is chewy, blistered naan.
The flavors at Saffron NOLA are unmistakably Indian, yet this place ranges far from the usual curry house script, embracing local seafood and a worldly, contemporary cooking style. Countless restaurants have taken that approach with the influences and traditions of Italy or France. But by drawing from the robust, famously flavorful fundamentals of Indian cuisine, Saffron NOLA is charting a different path, and at this unconventional restaurant it's as delicious and polished as it is inventive.
The catch is that Saffron NOLA serves dinner just one night a week, and that's because its owners are quite busy already. The restaurant is the offshoot of Saffron Caters, a company that Arvinder and Pardeep Vilkhu have run for some 20 years, and that business is a sideline itself. By day, Arvinder runs the Pickwick Club, one of the city's private old-line clubs, while his wife Pardeep is a psychologist. When Pardeep retired from that field last year, the family decided to expand Saffron as a restaurant, though they didn't want to open just another Indian eatery.
Tumeric and chiles, ginger, garlic and coriander seed - these touchstone flavors of Indian cooking come through in abundance here, but they add their zest to dishes that otherwise would be at home on any upscale bistro menu. So a Malabar-style curry is the sauce for seared amberjack paneed in lentil flour while scallops, caked with ginger and chiles, sit high above a mild, creamy, distinctive, mango-flavored curry. Curry goes in a seafood gumbo, and a ginger tomato sauce laces a spread of fried shrimp.
It's possible to assemble a more familiar Indian meal here. The chicken tikka, the yogurt-marinated goat or the chicken curry will see to that. But it's so much more interesting to see how this kitchen works Indian flavor into other types of dishes.
The idea of ordering a pulled pork sandwich at a restaurant like this might seem odd, but this sandwich is no joke. The falling-apart tangle of pork is painted with a spicy vindaloo, cut through with saut ed spinach and softened by its buttery brioche bun. Resist the impulse to wolf it all down, because the flavors of each bite build as they spend some time in your mouth, a hallmark of deft Indian cooking in any context.
The one-day-a-week window to catch this cooking is narrow. But with nowhere else around to find food quite like this, finding a Friday night to experience it is the easy part.
505 Gretna Blvd., Gretna, 363-2174