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Subtle Seasonings 

Saffron puts a lot of care--but not a lot of spice--into its delicate Indian food

A couple of years ago, I heard a rumor that a New York Indian restaurant had sent a headhunter to Tucson in an effort to lure chefs from our city's Indian restaurants. Apparently, it was just too difficult to find good Indian chefs in NYC, but they were easy to come by here.

Until this year, all of Tucson's Indian restaurants had been modest family-style places, decorated with depictions of Hindu gods and gurus and sites like the Taj Mahal, and all serving intensely flavorful cuisine from the subcontinent. A few months ago, something different opened in Oro Valley: Saffron Indian Bistro. The food is similar to that already available here, if less spicy, confirming that restaurant heat increasingly dissipates as Tucson diners travel north.

The décor is what's most different at Saffron: In this respect, the word "bistro" vanquishes the Indian element. The restaurant resides in a large, open corner space in a strip mall on Oracle Road, just north of Ina Road. A bar travels the length of the glass side wall, and more-or-less saffron-colored panels and a half-wall separate the waiters' station and the lunch buffet from the dining area. Bare white-topped tables spread out under a high, black, exposed-duct ceiling. There's not an elephant-headed god in sight. You'd think that the high ceilings and reflective surfaces would lead to unbearable noise levels, but when we visited one night last week, we never had to raise our voices across the table, even though the restaurant was nearly full. On the other hand, while the design is quite contemporary (even bistro-generic), I imagine it might take on the atmosphere of a cafeteria when the lunch buffet is open.

But we were there for dinner, an experience that was satisfactory once I realized that if Saffron's recipes lack the intensity of the competitors', the kitchen is at least taking care to prepare dishes that are subtle and delicate.

Whatever your expectations are, you can't quibble over the quality of the Saffron tandoori grill ($17.95), a platter of chicken tikka, lamb, shrimp, shish kebab (essentially little lamb sausages cooked on a skewer) and a single tandoori chicken leg. Note the price--you pay more for almost everything at Saffron than you do elsewhere in town, but the portions do tend to be more generous in compensation. (Still, for nearly $18, I would have expected a bit more flesh on the platter.) Nevertheless, the meats were cooked admirably; they were well seasoned, thoroughly done and remained remarkably moist. (At other Indian restaurants, tandoori chicken can be dry, depending on the time of day and who's in the kitchen.)

I'm getting ahead of myself. The meal begins with a basket of pappadam (or papadum, depending on the transliteration), the thin, crisp unleavened flatbread made from lentil flour and served with two chutneys, one sweet, one spicy. That comes automatically, the Indian counterpart to the basket of tortilla chips at a Mexican restaurant.

For appetizers, we ordered the chicken samosas ($5.25 for only two)--chopped chicken tikka stuffed into crispy turnovers--and vegetable pakoras ($4.95 for a more generous plate), mixed vegetable fritters (think deep-fried cauliflower). These were quite good; the chicken and vegetables were tender, while the breading was light and not at all oily.

Now, back to the entrées. The cavratan korma ($11.95) is a selection of vegetables (mainly potatoes and cauliflower) in a creamy sauce. Chicken dhansak ($12.95), a traditional Parsi dish that presents chicken chunks in a thick stew of lentils (larger than the little brown things you find in American supermarkets), involves the sweeter seasonings, like coriander, cinnamon and mint. A different kind of lentils--black--finds its way into the daal makhani ($10.95), with its tomato-and-cream sauce. The shahi kofta ($11.95) are spiced vegetable rolls (of dumpling consistency) prepared in a curry sauce; the bowl contains more sauce than rolls. We consumed all of this with the basmati rice that comes with everything we ordered (except for the tandoori grill), plus a few sides of garlic naan ($2.95), that indispensable pita-like bread.

In every case, the dishes arrived without excessive oil, and the items that weren't soupy came artfully presented on platters with little swirls of chutney for decoration. Because some members of our party avoid hot spices, we asked that everything be prepared to medium hotness. Saffron's concept of "medium" is what I would call "barely discernable." The scale has obviously been reset to accommodate timid palates.

Aside from this disappointment, everything was good, if subtly flavored. Delicacy is not such a fine thing, though, when you're piling several different dishes onto a bed of rice on your plate and slopping it up indiscriminately. After a while, much of it begins to taste alike. For best results, order just one or two main-course dishes, and focus on them.

If you're still hungry, there's always dessert. We tried three of the four offerings (the one we neglected, for no reason, was the rice pudding). Three of them cost $3.95, but the more expensive item, at $4.25, is the ras malai, a little bowl of sweet cheese balls flavored with just a mere suggestion of saffron, swimming in cardamom syrup. There isn't much to confront with your spoon, but it is delicious, rich and satisfying. Also good were the mango kulfi (dense Indian ice cream) and the gulab jamun, pastry dumplings in milk and honey. Saffron gives you only two; I think most other local restaurants will let you have three.

So: If you want a more riotous flavor experience and traditional décor, stick to Tucson's better-established Indian restaurants (I favor Gandhi and Sher-e-Punjab). But if you're prepared for a more subtle experience in mod, minimalist surroundings, try Saffron.

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