Cafe Reviews

Spice War

According to the Egyptian Book of the Dead, Anubis, the jackal-headed judge of the underworld, weighs the hearts of men against the feather of truth and justice. As long as the organ does not tip the scale, the deceased is granted immortality. But if the heart is too heavy with ill deeds done in the land of the living, it's devoured by the monstrous Ammut, and the soul suffers a much-deserved second death.

Usually, I relish my role as Arizona's Anubis of restaurateurs, but with Saffron, the fledgling Tempe bar and eatery that's in eye-shot of Sun Devil Stadium, I'm left in a quandary. My initial impression upon seeing the handsome space, with its dining area that spills out onto a gated patio, and its gold-gray-maroon color scheme, was favorable. Indeed, despite a constant parade of exhaust-spewing buses from the stop across the street, there's something lonely, spare and almost Edward Hopper-ish about Saffron -- attributes normally found in more sophisticated urban landscapes.

I'm also generally inclined to praise the attempts of anyone who supports adult dining in a college town where burritos, chicken wings and pizza reign supreme. It's a difficult task, but by no means impossible. In the same burg, both Mucho Gusto and Caffe Boa cater to more demanding palates and enjoy considerable success. But these restaurants both have carefully considered menus that consistently deliver the goods to your taste buds. In the case of Saffron, it often seems as if its chef and owner Kishore Joseph has invested more thought in the name than in cooking with the same pricey spice.

Saffron's Web site refers to its "Asian-influenced, new American menu." Actually, it's more like my bedroom closet when I was a kid, the place where I threw everything when my parental units ordered me to clean up. There's no theme, no rhyme or reason, just a jumble of mismatched items, from pedestrian chips and salsa and chicken wings to samosas and uninspired "Asian bowls." Joseph boasts an impressive r&eacaute;sumé. He worked at Elements and is a grad of Scottsdale Culinary Institute. What did they teach him at these places? How to create one of the most unoriginal lists of edibles I've ever read? Not counting such purveyors of crassness and mediocrity as the Cheesecake Factory and Olive Garden, of course.

To be fair, not everything Joseph creates is as bland as a Neil Diamond medley. Even Saffron's status as a rookie operation doesn't excuse its faults, particularly when you consider that Joseph bought the place almost a year ago, and maintained it as the Stateside Grill before closing it down for the summer for renovations. Couldn't he have come up with an alternative to these stupid Asian bowls? He offers five, all the same save for your choice of tofu, steak, shrimp, or just veggies, and to judge by the steak version I tried in its sweet soy sesame sauce, they're no better than what you'd receive at Panda Express. The rice was adequate, but that brown gunk they were drowned in was too much like the white-bread, round-eye sweet-'n'-sour sauce so popular in the vast mundanity of Ameri-duh. Their very existence on this menu made me want to take a bazooka to the joint.

I've downed so many fried squid rings in my time, it's a miracle I'm not sprouting tentacles from my backside. Still, some establishments do the calamari cliché better than others. Saffron isn't in this class: Its batter is too thick and the miso scallion dip unappetizing. The coconut shrimp didn't float my tugboat, either. These rather small crustaceans were so encrusted with browned coconut that it was more like eating stale Halloween candy than seafood. The strawberry compote that came with them only made things worse. The shrimp were sweet enough without the addition of this cloying, chutney-like condiment.

The samosas were a bright spot, as was the filet mignon chili, both showing what Joseph is capable of when he has the balls to depart from his annoying, gastronomic genuflection to the palates of the hoi polloi. The samosas were as scrumptious as any you'd find in an Indian buffet, and the chili was truly original, a tangy mix of kidney beans, chickpeas and beef bits with a big spoonful of sour cream on the side. Apparently, Joseph does know how to use cumin, coriander, chiles, and so forth. I only wish he did so more often.

Joseph shines with items like his grilled salmon, which lives up to Saffron's promise of Asian fusion. The fish was spread too liberally with its "Chinese mustard glaze." I mean, Kishore, it need not be as thick as icing, old chum. But aside from this nitpick, the salmon was a keeper, as was the soft, satisfying baby bok choy with buckwheat soba noodles in a white wine cream that came with the fillet.

Yet for every item like the salmon, there's one like the beef stroganoff with carne asada and fettuccine in a goat cheese sauce. Despite the inclusion of melted chèvre, the sauce was incredibly lacking in flavor, and the meat had a peculiar pre-chewed texture to it that did not make me want to finish it. My insufferably officious server wondered why I didn't want to take it home with me, almost whimpering when I told him I wasn't fond of the mess. Note to management: Such nauseating behavior does not lend itself to a pleasant dining experience.

The penne chicken with pulled clucker, bacon and marinara was fair-to-middling, and in need of some oomph. I liked Joseph's lighter take on the Monte Cristo sandwich, but the fries that came with it were gross, black in parts. The grilled pork tenderloin should have been an opportunity for Joseph to show off. However, the "almond saffron curry" atop each of the three swine medallions -- one of the few times Joseph actually uses saffron -- was pasty and unappealing.

Dessert? The fried cheesecake, akin to a cannoli or a blintz, is so-so, but the "mud pie" is disgusting, served straight from the freezer with ice crystals on it, like something Carvel would be ashamed to peddle. Joseph gets it from elsewhere, but so what? Maybe Joseph will improve things drastically in the coming weeks and months. But until he does so, the judgment of The Jackal is a "no go."

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons