New Orleans’ ground-breaking Indian gem, Saffron NOLA, is launching lunch service on Fridays and Saturdays, starting this week — and the menu lives up to the very high bar the Vilkhu family has set for itself.
When Arvinder (or “Dickey”) and Pardeep Vilkhu, owners of the award-winning restaurant, were first married in the early ‘80s, Arvinder Vilkhu worked late hours at the restaurant in the Taj Palace hotel in New Delhi.
“When you’re a newly-wed, it’s heartbreaking to see your spouse at home alone waiting. So, I used to take ‘peacemakers’ in the form of food and gifts and things like that. And at one or two in the morning, we’d have a nice moment in the wee hours of the night,” Arvinder Vilkhu said.
The most memorable “peacemaker” came in the form of a cheesy, pressed sandwich measuring 8 inches by 8 inches from the 24-hour coffee shop in the five-star hotel, intensely comforting and perfect for splitting.
Sandwiches aren’t part of the tightly refined dinner menu at Saffron, so when Arvinder Vilkhu retired from his post at the private Pickwick Club at the end of May — and finally had time to launch lunch service — the sandwich was the starting point of the menu. Arvinder Vilkhu also says it’s the most important part. (At the Eater photo shoot, the sandwich came out and Arvinder Vilkhu turned to his wife Pardeep Vikhu and said, “Bring back memories?”)
One of the things that makes Saffron so exciting is that the cuisine is such a clear expression of the Vilkhu family’s personal history — forging the cuisines, the ingredients, and the family’s experiences from India and New Orleans into beguiling dishes that remain firmly grounded in authenticity. Saffron is a restaurant so unique that it couldn’t come from anyone or anywhere else. Lunch is no different.
The menu is lighter with small bites, salads, sandwiches, and soups. “It’s still all stuff we ate growing up,” son Ashwin Vilhu says. There are only four dishes from the dinner menu on it — the Bombay shrimp, kachumber salad, tuna chaat, and the beloved oyster bed roast.
Here’s a first look at the menu:
The chicken and cheese press, Saffron’s version of the “peacemaker” from the New Delhi hotel coffee shop, combines chicken, cilantro, green chilies, gruyere, and asiago on pressed bread. In lieu of ketchup, there’s a sweet and acidic apple pear chutney.
Pani puri is a roadside staple in India, typically a spicy semolina pastry shell filled with flavored water, tamarind chutney, chili, chaat masala, potato, onion, or chickpeas. Saffron fills it with a creamy Louisiana jumbo lump crabmeat and herb ravigote, a filling familiar to New Orleanians. The restaurant spices it with kashmir chile, some herbs, and tops it with fresh micro cilantro.
Arvinder Vilkhu says gazpacho was popular during his time at the Pickwick Club. The family also served it on Friday nights during the summer when they ran Saffron on the Westbank. The Indoz-pacho’s flavors are more complex than a typical gazpacho — with roasted tomato, mango, cucumber, red onions, and green chilies. It’s served with naan crackers.
The lunch menu includes a few salads, like this “summer salad” with grilled romaine, carrots, cucumbers, crispy shallots, coriander, pink peppercorn, and mango vinaigrette.
Years ago, when Arvinder Vilkhu’s work in India’s hotels took him to Malabar, on the tip of India’s southern coast, he discovered seafood and lighter flavors: The cuisine was starkly and “pleasantly” different than the robust flavors and rich meats in his northern Indian diet. Saffron’s Malabar shrimp curry is made with coconut milk, turmeric, tomato, and curry leaf.
The mussels and velouté dish was developed at the Pickwick Club. When Arvinder Vilkhu joined the staff at there, the members thought there should be something Indian on the menu, so Arvinder Vilkhu and the chef at the Pickwick developed this light mussels dish with coconut milk, curry leaf, chilies, black pepper, and lemon. (Here it’s pictured with a classic daiquiri from the Saffron bar, which is set up for both the creative cocktails on the menu as well as all the classics)
An Indian kabab (or kebab) is heavily spiced and usually molded around a skewer to be cooked over the fire. At Saffron, the half beef and half pork patty is part of a hamburger served with “aloo frites.” A local bakery is making the buns for the restaurant.
The shrimp on the Jhinga (jhinga is the Indian word for prawns or shrimp) melon salad are grilled along with pineapple and served with watermelon and paneer and feta crumble. The kitchen staff at Saffron developed this dish for the lunch menu.
As much as Saffron grounds Indian cuisine in familiar preparations, it also aims to expand its diners’ knowledge of the range of Indian cooking. For example, “Indo-Chin” dishes figure prominently on both the lunch and dinner menus. Over a century ago, a small community that lived in Kolkata developed the cuisine, which uses Chinese cooking techniques with Indian flavors. Ashwin Vilkhu says that Indo-Chinese cooking was a big part of his upbringing. This crispy Indo-Chin fish from the lunch menu is served with vegetables cooked in a wok with szechuan-ginger chile and an heirloom tomato fumé.
Dessert at lunch is simple — scoops of ice cream in enticing flavors like saffron chocolate crunch, grilled peach, mango coconut, and fig-date-praline.
Lunch starts this Friday and reservations are available from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. A full lunch menu will be available at Saffron’s website.
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