Hot House

The Saffron House teases with consummation, even on the walls. This relief depicts the sensuality of an Indian wedding.

Saffron is the Bentley of the spice rack. The golden, rich and pungent powder rendered from the threadlike stigmas of the flowering crocus is the most expensive spice in the world. At various periods in history, this bouillabaisse staple has been worth much more than its weight in gold. This value stems from the fact that the labor-intensive crop yields just 5 to 7 pounds of saffron per acre. Kashmir Mogra Cream Indian Saffron, considered the finest on the globe, costs about $58 per quarter-ounce. OK, maybe it's not as expensive as those herbs that turn you into scruples-free Cheetos fiends with just one puff. But that's a helluva lot more expensive than McCormick Season All.

Saffron isn't conspicuous in The Saffron House menu. Heat is. Heat is an Indian predilection. Perhaps that's why so much Indian food in the Dallas area is wanting so much of the time. The thermostat's been tampered with, perhaps.

Skip to the back of the Saffron menu and you'll stumble on the "Indo-Chinese" section. It's a compact selection, just seven items out of a menu of 70-something creations. These items have names like chilly chicken and chilly fish, though chilly they most certainly aren't. "Indians generally like their food a little more spicy and hot," says owner Gautam Prakash, who with partner Supriya Reddy created this upscale Indian restaurant. "So compared to the American Chinese, the Indian Chinese has a little more spice."


The Saffron House

Appetizer sampler $6.50
Chicken kathi kebab $6
Lamb chops $20.95
Lobster masala $25.95
Whole roasted chicken $21.50
Lamb meatballs in curry $15.50
Shrimp moiley $15.95
Noodles vegetable chicken $10.95

And that's the way noodles vegetable chicken is, spicy--though not a blitzkrieg of spice. It's more of a strafing of pricks. When the order was first put in for the dish, our server claimed there were no noodles in the house. No noodles?

On each of our visits, The Saffron House was empty, with at most three other tables occupied among the sprawling tiled floor holding rich red chairs. So it's doubtful they suddenly ran out of noodles. We thought for a few moments, contemplating our next move while our server returned to his burrow.

But we weren't abandoned to twiddle our thumbs. A stop or two before, he had delivered a paper-lined bowl of very peppery and bumpy pappadam wafers as large as disc drums and as thin as wood shavings. It's easy to rapidly devastate these wafers, and more are brought, but they're always eked out at one per person.

What's odder is that the spaces between requests and responses, orders and delivery, are yawning, especially for a restaurant with so many empty seats. Our server returned several minutes later to tell us the kitchen found some noodles.

Noodles vegetable chicken arrived on a platter, the strands of hakka noodles pasted into a long mass resembling some sort of elongated organ. Three bell pepper slices were arranged around the platter, but the one hugging the innermost edge was peculiar: It still had the seedy core, the delicate tendrils lashing it to the pepper shell still in place. While heat may break sweats at Saffron House, details apparently don't.

The chicken was juicy, though, and cuddled with strips of onion, scraps of lettuce, yellow bell pepper, an abundance of scallions and pieces of ginger adhered with a Chinese dressing. But the noodles were overcooked, barely hovering above mushiness.

Head lettuce shavings carpet much of the dishes at Saffron House. Not the bright green or snowy white slivers and clippings but the yellow, dull gray detritus. Those details again. Saffron special appetizer platter had that leafy shag, supporting an assortment of samosas (fried pastries swollen with potatoes and peas), spring rolls with vegetables and chicken, vegetable pakoras (deep-fried chickpea fritters) and onion bhaji (deep-fried onions) that were golden, crisp and virtually greaseless.

Chicken kathi kebab was an odd installment that resembled an exotic burrito. It's a thick wrap: egg paratha (wheat tortilla fried in egg batter) caging rough cubes of tandoori chicken stir-fried with peppers and onions. Deposited on more yellow and gray-white head lettuce, the burrito is cut in half and swaddled in uncountable layers of aluminum foil tapering off into twisted metal tendrils out the back end as if the things had possum tails. Insides were juicy, fiery, hearty.

Prakash says his ambition with The Saffron House is to create an "upscale Indian place that reflects Indian heritage and tradition." To that end, this former leather retail store has been dolled up with delicate bead chandeliers crafted in the shape of bells, an ornate black granite buffet table (is it a code violation if Indian restaurants are not equipped with buffet tables?), burnt red walls and rich Indian paintings. But the focal point is a huge gold relief rendered in fiberglass depicting the sensual and sumptuous ornamentation of an Indian wedding.

Such pomp and circumstance have always been a feature of Indian cuisine, a grub that is layered with so much moody complexity it thoroughly occupies the mind as well as the senses. It almost always twists perception in some subtle way, forever altering the way food is absorbed into consciousness.

Murgh mussallam is just one such example. This whole chicken (skin, too) is roasted in a thick sauce bulging with garlic, cardamom and spice. It is lush with moisture and complex flavor. Spices had seeped deeply into the white flesh. Who knew chicken could sweat such flavor concentrations?

Compelling visual touches intrude, too. Lobster masala arrives as a sprawl of gray and white studs of diced lobster peeking through here and there. Bright, deep coral-hued halves of tail shell flanked the top edge of the platter, giving the dish visual pop. But the treatment--littered with onions, garlic, peas and peppers--trumped any rich lobster flavor that may have been present. Most likely, though, it wasn't the surrounding flow of ingredients that detracted. It was the weakly rich lobster meat--a frozen appendage no doubt.

Shrimp moiley had a similar disposition, at least superficially. But it was simpler: just curls of firm shrimp in a dull taupe coconut-based sauce sparked with cumin, ginger, cilantro and curry. It was smooth, rich and satisfying--an exquisitely jarring piece of preparation.

But while Saffron's seafood fired a spicy scorch of inspiration, lamb dishes disappointed. Nargisi kofta curry, minced lamb meatballs in rich yogurt gravy, seethed with that incomprehensible blanket of Indian complexity, but it was stingy with its balls. Lamb chops were even more of a disappointment, saddled next to an overcooked vegetable medley of green beans, onions, cauliflower, corrugated carrot slices (could they have come from the same chiller as the lobster tail?), thick potato slices and lima beans. Three tiny chops caked in a pale algae-green paste broken with singe-mark breaks around the edges were mealy and dry with just a barely perceptible peek of pink in the center.

Saffron House successfully flirts with all of the mind-bending sensuality that makes Indian cuisine among the greatest in the world. But it is just that: a flirtation; one that in the end amounts to a frustrating tease with consummation. Details dog it. There appears to be no eye (or tongue, for that matter) zeroing in on kitchen craft, no precise touch to keep the complex array of Indian culinary explosives from chafing or even mutilating basic foodstuffs. A touch like this is worth even more than an ounce of saffron powder.

5100 Belt Line Road, Addison, 972-239-1800. Open for lunch 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. Open for dinner 5 p.m.-10 p.m. Sunday & Tuesday-Thursday; 5 p.m-11 p.m. Friday & Saturday. Open for Sunday brunch 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. $$-$$$

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