Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 5
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Minor problems don’t keep Saffron from offering solid, if untraditional Mediterranean fare

Saffron Mediterranean Kitchen – 2 stars out of 4 (very good)

Mediterranean cuisine, an ambiguous brand of cooking that spreads from Spain’s Costa Brava to the coast of Crete, caught on in the United States circa 1975, when dietary enthusiasts discovered the so-called Mediterranean diet. Though the used-and-abused stereotype is touted today for its supposed healthy ingredients (there is little proof that this “diet” is any healthier than any other “diet”), Saffron Mediterranean Kitchen: Walla Walla’s premier dining establishment that evokes this style of cooking: has a less deceptive approach when presenting its gastronomical partiality.

Saffron changed ownership in 2007, and to the credit of Chris and Island Ainsworth, the establishment’s head chef and co-proprietors, the restaurant has discovered its culinary identity: one that emphasizes citrus- and seafood-accentuated flavors while attempting to faithfully represent some of the most traditional and culturally emblematic dishes of the Sea’s countries. These iconic dishes include appetizers such as Syrian lamb tartar ($9), Levantine kibbeh ($11) and Spanish patatas bravas ($8); as well as entrées such as Turkish gözleme ($14), Italian pisarei ($21) and Spanish paella ($30): their self-proclaimed nonpareil dish. With many of the ingredients for these particular dishes imported from the coast, it is difficult for the chefs to preserve fidelity to at least several of the dishes on Saffron’s menu. This unfortunate reality of living inland shows in several of Saffron’s more ambitious dishes, yet the overall quality that greeted my friend and I when we arrived at 125 West Alder St. slightly exceeded our expectations.

If there is any area in which Saffron outdoes its immediate competition, chiefly CreekTown Café and Whitehouse-Crawford Restaurant, it may be in service. The server, who happened to be a former Whittie (she didn’t know, however, that we were current students), took my reservation the day before and, in a welcomed surprise, called the day of our reservation to confirm and express thanks and anticipation for our visit. When we arrived, she seated us fluently and, unlike many other servers from competing Walla Walla fine dining restaurants, unpromptedly and succinctly explained each item on the menu.

The atmosphere was light and quiet, but the restaurant’s interior provided a bold aesthetic that mixed dark colors with oak and intimate lighting. Our server soon brought us some hot-from-the-oven, house-made sourdough bread with a visually appealing bread dip composed of olive oil and star-shaped garlic. Like the bread, all of the pasta at Saffron is house-made. Throughout the evening, the server checked up on us periodically, but not anxiously, as some tend to do. She was genuinely cordial and friendly, and  invited us to critique each dish she brought out.

The first dish, Spanish patatas bravas: composed of fingerling potatoes, garlic aioli, spicy tomato sauce and chili peppers: was a complete misfire and was highlighted by a slightly inconsistent, hesitantly spicy tomato sauce that couched the pile of potatoes. The potatoes themselves were undercooked and boasted a tough outer skin that was barely glazed with the aioli, leaving my underwhelmed palate yearning for more creamy sauces to outweigh the faux marinara sauce in which the potatoes were bathed. The Spanish equivalent, primarily served as a “tapa,” uses peeled potatoes cooked to their utmost tenderness drenched in a spicy aioli sauce with few compliments.

The next dish: pheasant with a chick pea risotto, roasted parsnips and gremolata: was a marked improvement over the appetizer. It was recommended by our server and, for the most part, lived up to our expectations. The gremolata: an herb base made of garlic, parsley and lemon zest: marinated the exceptionally tender pheasant almost to a fault and the lemon would have been a little overpowering had the dish lacked the ingenious compliment of roasted parsnips. These were indeed the highlight of the dish for their unparalleled, subtle role of controlling the strong lemon bent. The pheasant itself, though perhaps not as tender as the server had touted, gracefully served its role as the canvas upon which other flavors were employed to bring out its own.

Our second entrée caught me off guard as much for its ingenuity as for its nontraditional development. Ultimately, the dish worked well and each ingredient played its role, though at times these did not interact with one another as one would expect. One of my favorite dishes because of my own heritage, Spanish paella is a complex dish to realize: It marries rice with a variety of seafood unparalleled by most Mediterranean dishes. Moreover, each head of a Spanish household has his or her own traditional, generationally passed down recipe for the dish: No two paellas are alike.

Saffron’s brand of paella is unique. The recipe: which combines house-made chorizo, natural free range chicken, prawns, clams, pequillo peppers, saffron rice, cilantro and green peppers: is very different from most Spanish recipes in that the prawns, clams and chicken are not cooked in with the rice, but merely scattered on its surface. This led to these ingredients feeling out of place taste-wise with the rest of the dish. After delving into the chorizo infused rice, however, this separation of flavors may have been warranted: The chorizo would have likely, at least, muddled the delicate seafood flavors. The biggest disappointment of the much-awaited paella was undoubtedly the inefficacy of the saffron, whose unique flavor was certainly eschewed by the heavy and dominating chorizo.

Critiques aside, my date and I enjoyed our visit to Saffron. The menu is focused and delivers, albeit sometimes untraditionally, many of the wonderful flavors that make up that amorphous genre of cuisine many call Mediterranean. Those with a palate that rejoices when it comes in contact with Middle Eastern spices or Italian pastas will be as satisfied as their counterparts who enjoy the bold flavors of the Spanish Basque Country and the Greek archipelago. While Saffron certainly has its share of gastronomic mishaps, that should not deter you from visiting one of Walla Walla’s finest restaurants.

Saffron Mediterranean Kitchen

125 West Alder St.

Phone: 509.525.2112

www.saffronmediterraneankitchen.com

Reservations are welcome

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