To some it might seem too quick to be deserved, but just five months after opening its doors, Saffron NOLA managed to score an Eater’s highest accolade: Eater Award for Restaurant of the Year.
But digging a little deeper, one gleans that the roots of this upscale Magazine Street Indian restaurant were planted years ago, and that any success it now enjoys is, in fact, the result of not only of an exceptionally well-executed menu and a savvy model but also decades of hard work and the cumulative experience by the four members of the Vilkhu family that run it: father, husband and executive chef Arvinder or “Dickey;” wife, mother and prep chef Pardeep; son Ashwin, who serves as both GM and bar director; and daughter Pranita, the restaurant’s operations manager.
Eater recently had the chance to duck out of the cold, pull up a stool, and sit down with Ashwin over a round of savory cocktails about the inspiration behind Saffron and its quick success.
Despite the fact that Saffron is your family’s first brick and mortar restaurant, there are some prequels that explain how you arrived at this point, aren’t there?
My parents immigrated in 1984. Typical immigrant story. They arrived with a total of $500 in their pockets. My father worked in the hospitality industry. Years ago, they decided to begin a catering business. The food was a mix, not just Indian. They targeted Uptown as a demographic because of my father’s professional connections. (He’s worked for years at The Pickwick Club.) Then, about six years ago, some customers approached them about starting up their own place. What grew out of that was Saffron, a pop up on the West Bank. The design was charming with white table cloths; they took a lot of care to make it feel like a warm and welcoming place you’d want to be. It was selling out every time, and basically, there were some investors who let my parents know that whenever they were ready there would be backing for them to open a restaurant.
Your website describes Saffron’s cuisine as a blending of traditional recipes infused with New Orleans ingredients. Are there any dishes that remain true to their Indian roots?
It’s all super authentic. You just don’t see it that often. We’re doing something non-traditional in the sense that you’re not going to see a big bowl of curry over rice. We didn’t want to do that. When you walk in, you’re not overloaded with those heavy smells but with a wider range of more nuanced scents: bread, a range of spices. Indian cuisine is ancient and complex. We want to be true to that.
We’re also drawing from local ingredients: meats, seafood, and produce. It’s a chef’s dream to have access to all this state has to offer. So there is a Louisiana connection. My father has worked in hotel administration internationally and has a wide range of influences when it comes to technique: Indian, French, Brazilian, even Singapore. And of course here, in New Orleans. Paul Prudhomme’s spice mixes for his blackened fish were an influence.
Does the menu center around a specific Indian region or state?
My family is from the Punjab in the North, so we eat bread with everything. It’s in the South that you find a lot of coconut milk, curry leaves, and rice. A key component you’ll see on our menu is tahli, or the all-encompassing meal comprised of many small portions, each served with traditional bread or roti sati. These make for great share plates and are wonderful way to sample multiple flavors.
But just like there’s a fusion of Indian and Louisiana on the menu, there’s also some Northern and Southern Indian fusion as well. The spice profiles were use draw from both parts of the country, things like mustard seeds, kashmiri chilis, fennel, fenugreek, and garam masala from the North. From the South, those spices include cardamom, tamarind, turmeric, curry leaves, and of course, coconut.
Why do you think there’s hasn’t been an upscale Indian restaurant in New Orleans before now?
I think those who first came to this country had a tough task in that they needed to make Indian food feel approachable to the average American customer and palette. The way a lot of restaurant owners chose to accomplish this was to use an easily recognizable American dining form: the all-you-can eat buffet. That model spread until it became synonymous with Indian food.
But we wanted to open to show the cuisine’s potential, its purer form. Have you ever seen an actual Indian restaurant menu? They’re usually pages long. Instead we opted for quality over quantity. Right now, it’s a little short, and so we’ll be expanding in the upcoming weeks, adding another vegetarian main and a beef option and probably making some other shifts. It’s our intention to have seasonal updates.
Do you think there’s been a sea change in this city when it comes to upscale ethnic restaurants?
For sure. When I first pitched the idea of an upscale Indian restaurant to my family, I used the success of Alon Shaya’s restaurant right across the way to make my case. I figured if he could do that with Israeli food, we could do it with Indian. I later thanked him for helping to pave the way.
Were there any concerns about opening a permanent restaurant?
Sure. How hard it was going to be. But each of us has contributed and covers something different. Me, I’m bar and managerial, my sister is accounting, my father overseas the kitchen and my mother, with the prep kitchen. My mother never gets the credit she deserves, and so I want to say something about her. She’s the heart of the operation. She and her team prepare all the sauces and marinades, including grinding all the spices. She’s also the best human being I know.
In my experience, it’s unusual to find an Indian restaurant that puts so much care into cocktails, let alone originals. For instance, I’m particularly adoring this Saffron NOLA old fashioned. I’m pretty sure I’ve never had a cocktail that contained mango chutney. What makes these drinks an essential part of the Saffron menu?
Given my background and training in the spirits industry, it was essential for me that we have an elevated program. For instance, our popular drink The Indo-French Tea Party (cognac, chai, lemon, fennel, Champagne) was a part of the menu when we were doing the pop-up, but no one knew. I wanted to make sure the drinks here were front and center. We’ve aimed to remain true to traditional cocktails but have added South Asian touches like tamarind, ginger, cardamom and turmeric. We take a lot of extra care too in making our own infusions, tinctures, and bitters. See this leaf? It’s a curry leaf from a 25-foot tree that grows in our backyard.
We also make a point of indicating two aspects for every drink on the menu: its method of mixing, whether it’s shaken, swizzled, or stirred, and the type of vessel or glass it’s served in.
There’s a fair amount of talk that the city may have reached a point of saturation when it comes to restaurants, and yet the tables are completely filled here tonight. Aside from offering great food, what do you think has made Saffron a success in its opening months?
Experience. Everyone came into this with an area of expertise. And the staff. They’re absolutely behind us. As a customer recently told me, our staff doesn’t just respond to need, it anticipates needs. They see that we’re invested and engaged in the trenches as it were, at the table, at the bar, the kitchen. That’s makes a difference, I think. We all weigh in on the menu. The ownership is here, on the ground, not in some office somewhere else.
Some success is probably also due our slightly drill sergeant-like upbringing. My father was a firm believer of giving a firm handshake and looking them in the eye. He taught us that the guest is always treated with respect. We’ve definitely brought that ethos to the restaurant.
What do you want your diners to leave here feeling? What are you striving to impart as the Saffron experience?
I want to engage all their senses. All of them. Eyes, ears, nose, their palette from the moment they walk in, and experience the rich colors of the design: rusts, browns, coppers, through the entire meal. I want them to think about this meal afterwards. I want to give them something memorable.