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Review: Saffron NOLA 

Ian McNulty on a unique Indian restaurant that's open only one night a week

click to enlarge Arvinder Vilkhu and chef Pardeep Vilkhu expanded their catering business into a creative Indian restaurant. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber
  • Arvinder Vilkhu and chef Pardeep Vilkhu expanded their catering business into a creative Indian restaurant.

You've had crab cakes and New Orleans-style barbecue shrimp before, but probably not the way they are made at Saffron NOLA.

  These crab cakes are pancakes made of soft, nutty-tasting lentil batter and thick seams of lump meat. And the sauce over the shrimp tastes buttery, but it's also jammy with a sweet-and-sour tamarind tang. Just as you would with barbecue 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 robustly 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 Caterers, a company the Vilkhus 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, and his wife Pardeep is a psychologist. When she 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, chiles, ginger, garlic and coriander seed — these touchstone flavors of Indian cooking come through in abundance here, but they add zest to dishes that otherwise would be at home on any upscale bistro menu. So a Malabar-style curry is the sauce for amberjack paneed in lentil flour and scallops, caked with ginger and chiles, set high above a mild, creamy, distinctive, mango-flavored curry. Curry goes in seafood gumbo, and ginger-tomato sauce laces a spread of fried shrimp.

  Though this restaurant is fairly well hidden in a strip mall, the interior is stylishly decorated and very welcoming. There is a full bar with a respectable wine list, and the Vilkhus' daughter and her college friends comprise most of the service staff. They're warm, knowledgeable and easygoing.

  It's possible to assemble a more familiar Indian meal here. The chicken tikka, the yogurt-marinated goat and the chicken curry attest to that. But it is much more interesting to see how the 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 spicy vindaloo, cut through with sauteed spinach and softened by its buttery brioche bun. Resist the impulse to wolf it all down, because the flavors of each bite build slowly 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 to find food quite like this, finding a Friday night to experience it is the easy part.

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