- Ted Scheffler
Although we must find some language for talking about the foods we eat, I'm always a little hesitant to use such expansive labels like Chinese cuisine, Mexican food, Middle Eastern cooking and the like. For example, this column addresses a new Indian restaurant: Saffron Valley in Sugar House. But what does "Indian food" really mean?
India encompasses a rich, 5,000-plus-year-old culinary history with thousands of regional dishes, a current population of 1.2 billion, 30 or so different regional cuisines and hundreds of cooking techniques. So, to talk about "typical" Indian fare is a fool's errand.
Then again, Saffron Valley is anything but typical.
There's a sameness among many local Indian eateries that makes them look like carbon copies—for those of you old enough to remember typewriters—of one another. Menus, décor, lunch buffets and even the music all tend to be very similar from one restaurant to the next, as is the food. But Saffron Valley—which is a restaurant, market and chai bar—sets itself apart by serving a thali lunch, as well as unique signature curries and other dishes from every part of India.
Since Layton's Taste of India changed hands a while back, I've yet to find another local restaurant offering thali-style dining. But that's the Saffron Valley M.O. at lunchtime, when customers are treated to traditional multi-dish thali platters of roti (leavened flat bread), papadum, basmati rice, simmered lentils (dal), kulfi or gulab jamun for dessert, chutney and various curries and veggie choices that vary from day to day—all priced at a reasonable $10.99.
During dinner service, guests are given a bowl of papadum chips with mint and tamarind chutneys alongside to nibble while perusing the menu. Forgoing more standard appetizers like pakoras, samosas or chaat, we opted to begin our evening meal with chicken tikka dosa ($9). Dosas are savory rice and lentil crepes stuffed with almost anything imaginable. Ours—a trio of large dosas—were filled with spicy chicken tikka morsels and a fiery masala curry alongside for dipping. We wound up taking half of the dosas home as leftovers.
I mentioned that the décor isn't "typical," either. As with owner Lavanya Mahate's other Saffron Valley locations—one downtown and one in South Jordan—and her Biscotts Bakery & Café (also in South Jordan), the design is gorgeous, with great attention to detail. Gold and Prussian blue cloth napkins complement the matching walls in this contemporary setting. There are no images of Krishna or Ganesh, no sitar music and no incense burning—although, you can purchase incense in the market.
Shrimp Karaikudi ($14.95)—named for a municipality in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu—was plump, tender shrimp in a thin-ish (compared to standard curry) but delicious sauce made with roasted fennel, dried red chile peppers, cumin and curry spices. I only mention the consistency of the sauce because we tend to associate Indian food with thicker, gravy-type curries. Again, this dish isn't one you'll find on standard Indian restaurant menus.
Neither is laal maas ($14.95). Ranking right up there with some of the best curries I've eaten anywhere, this is a hot-and-spicy lamb curry from the Rajasthan region of India. According to Mahate, "It was a dish created for the royals of the region using wild game meat such as boar or deer. Hot spices and garlic were used to mask the gaminess of the meat. Over the decades, it has become a popular dish made with mutton or goat meat, which is less gamy. We at Saffron Valley make it with New Zealand Lamb." Indeed, the lamb—and there's lots of it—is oh-so tender, braised with Kashmiri chilies, ginger, garlic, bay leaf, cloves, cinnamon, star anise, onions and tomatoes. It's a killer curry.
Simply put, Saffron Valley is as atypical as it is superb.