Two restaurants straddle either side of North Third Street between First and Second avenues in downtown Minneapolis. On the north side is 112 Eatery, with a kitchen run by a James Beard Award-winning chef and accolades from everyone from The New York Times to your mother. It’s routinely singled out for its sophisticated yet affordable cuisine and is on the must-try list of every foodie in town.
Or so I’ve heard. I’ve never eaten there.
With a menu that features a pork product in at least half of its dishes — and shellfish in many of the remaining — I, a Jew who doesn’t eat either of those foods, don’t have much left to choose, and so I’ve never been. But don’t cry for me, Twin Cities. The restaurant on the south side of North Third, Saffron, is the answer to my pork-free prayers. And it’s no consolation prize — the top-notch Middle Eastern and Mediterranean food that graces the warm and vibrant dining room rivals the best dishes coming out of any area kitchen, and they back up my long-standing argument that you don’t need proscuitto or lardons to create a winning meal.
Chef Sameh Wadi, whose Muslim beliefs inform his decision to keep pork off his menu, instead has homed in on the flavors and spices that make the food from this region simultaneously exotic and comforting. Gently cooked vegetables, fragrant sauces, and tender meats benefit from a squeeze of lemon, a sprinkle of garlic, or a blend of fiery peppers. A dab of yogurt or a shower of coriander seeds can do as much for a dish as a crumbled slice of pancetta. With each bite you can taste the love and layers of flavor that generations of cooks have perfected — and Wadi has updated them for the present.
A recent overhaul of the menu has led to a new focus on mezze (small plates), and you’d be smart to start off your meal with a bunch of them. Perhaps the hummus (above left, $6 plain / $8-9 with toppings) doesn’t tempt you due to its ubiquity these days, but don’t overlook it. This hummus is the real deal — light, lemony, and bursting with freshness. That pasty puree you buy at the grocery store shouldn’t even be mentioned in the same breath at Saffron’s hummus. For an extra treat, top it with bastirma, silky, house-cured beef that offers a slightly salty contrast to the smooth hummus. Or, if you insist on skipping the hummus, order the charred fresh chickpeas (above right, $6), which you squeeze out of the pods like edamame, capturing the bits of lemon juice and sea salt with each slurp. The starters match beautifully with the non-alcoholic refreshments ($4.50) on the drinks menu — go for the Blood & Fire with watermelon and cucumber, or a Moroccan Chiller with mango, pineapple, orange, hibiscus, and orange blossom water.
A taste of Spain comes in the form of chicken and mushroom croquettes ($6), which win you over with their crispy shell and warm, umami-rich filling. Greece shows up as grilled haloumi cheese ($5) sandwiched between thick cubes of watermelon and a sprinkle of mint. The bready cheese features a tasty layer of char atop a crumbly, salty interior, providing a pleasing contrast to the sweet, juicy melon and cool mint. The crispy potato chips ($5) are addictive enough on their own, but the addition of za’tar yogurt and piquillo pepper sauce give your tongue a hot-and-cold roller-coaster ride that takes the chips over the top. If you’d rather steer clear of the fryer, the slow cooked green beans ($6) satisfy with a spicy tomato sauce that may cause you to reach for your cocktail a few extra times (try the Saffron Rose with gin, saffron, rose water, and sparkling rosé) but still leaves you wanting more.
The salads, apps, and sides section of the menu offers a little something for everyone. For those who are really missing their pork, substitute a lamb BLT ($8) with lamb bacon, saffron-tomato jam, and arugula on vanilla egg bread. Though the bacon isn’t crispy, as I’ve heard all good bacon should be, it is richly seasoned and meets its match with the sweet, meaty jam. The watermelon and heirloom tomato salad ($8) gets its kicks from charred jalapeño and then relief from the smooth cow’s-milk feta. Feta also makes an appearance — dehydrated, no less — sprinkled atop the grilled corn ($5), giving it an additional layer of crunch along with the zing of the ras el hanout seasoning. The snap of the sweet corn contrasts beautifully with the soft, pillowy interior of the coriander potatoes ($7), which, when swirled with the roasted tomatoes and caramelized paprika butter, create a silky sensation in your mouth.
With so many appealing choices on the top half of the menu, it’s a wonder many diners make it to the bottom half, which features the full-size entrées. But you’ll want to save room for the duck leg tagine ($27), bolstered by preserved lemons, olives, raisins, potatoes, and saffron. This traditional, slow-cooked Moroccan dish boasts tender, perfumed meat that you hardly have to chew — but you’ll want to so you can savor every mouthful of duck, potato, and sauce. A more decadent choice would be the sautéed Parisian gnocchi swimming in a black-truffle taleggio fondue ($18). Using the word “rich” to describe that cheese sauce is almost an understatement — it’s a good thing those delicate summer vegetables, like bite-size artichoke hearts, are there to lighten up each bite of toothsome dumplings.
Even if you don’t have enough room for an entrée, you should squeeze in some dessert before you depart. Otherwise, you’ll miss out on chocolate ganache cake ($8) with flavors so dark that you might be converted from milk chocolate forever. A dusting of coffee and a small scoop of vanilla ice cream provide all the sweet and spice you need for a well-rounded dessert. You may be intrigued by the olive oil couscous cake ($7), and it’s a great excuse to break out of your dessert rut. The moist, delicately flavored cake is the ideal base for sweet pineapple and yogurt sorbet, and the few spoonfuls of berries complete the dish with their juicy, jammy bite. If somehow you do find yourself with more than just a few bites left in you, order the blueberry and peach trifle ($7), which layers vanilla-baked peaches and blueberry-hibiscus preserves with a soft lemon cake, candied ginger cream, and a crunchy topping of rice krispy clusters. The baked peaches are still firm and act as a pleasing counterpart to the plush cake and syrupy blueberries. Pair with a soft sherry or sweet muscat, and you’ll linger so long that the tick of your parking meter is the only signal that any time has passed at all.
Pork, schmork — Saffron proves you don’t need anything porcine to make a first-class meal. With a chef like Wadi at the helm, a welcoming, generous, and knowledgeable staff (my gluten-free dining companion was impressed by the care with which our waiter walked her through the menu), and a delightful, inviting decor (gone are the white tablecloths of yore), Saffron is a gem of a restaurant that has earned every bit of its praise. You can keep your bacon and pork belly — I’ll be sticking to the south side of North Third Street and enjoying every bite.
BEST BET: The hummus with bastirma ($9) should be the first thing everyone orders, with the duck leg tagine ($7) coming in second.
Middle Eastern / Mediterranean in the Warehouse District
124 N Third St
Minneapolis, MN 55401
Happy hour Mon-Fri 4-6pm
CHEF / OWNER: Sameh Wadi
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED: Yes/ On weekends
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / Some mezze
ENTREE PRICE: $18-29 for entrées, $5-9 for mezze