ORO VALLEY — On a busy Friday night last month, a quiet buzz filled the dining room at Saffron Indian Bistro.
Servers navigated between nearly three dozen tables along the polished concrete floor, delivering nicely crafted plates of tandoori grilled meats, fragrant vegetable stews and crispy naan.
A trio of hostesses sporting decorative bindis on their foreheads clasped their hands, bowed their heads and greeted diners with a pleasant namaste — loosely translated, it’s a very respectful hello.
In the case of Saffron, it’s also an invitation to experience the only upscale Indian eatery among Tucson restaurants.
The labeling might seem a misnomer if your definition of upscale rests mostly on menu prices. Entrees at this Northwest Side restaurant start out at $9.95 and average just a few dollars more; the priciest entree on the menu of chicken, seafood and veggie dishes was the tandoori seared lamb chops ($28.95).
Here, upscale is defined more by attention to the details. The casually appointed, airy dining room is divided from the kitchen by colorful panels. Elaborate, flower-shaped metal light sconces on one wall cast weblike shadows, while recessed lights offer a dim hue once the sun sets. Service is attentive and mostly well-paced, and authentic interpretations of classic Indian dishes are plated with an emphasis on presentation. Crispy vegetable samosa turnovers ($4.25), plump with smashed potatoes and baby field peas, are plated with a slightly spicy chile coulis. A house tandoori grill ($17.95) is a colorful and wonderfully tender platter of chicken tikka, lamb, shrimp and shish kebab, served with fluffy aromatic basmati rice.
The evening begins with a pair of inventive chutneys — refreshing mint and sweet and fruity tamarind — accompanying complimentary papards, fried crispy chips. (A third chutney, an assertive onion, is available by request.) Think of it as the Indian take on chips and salsa. Nibble away as you peruse the menu, the creative collaboration of owner Saurabh Sareen, who also has the four-year-old University of Arizona-area fast-food outpost Kababeque, and his chefs — executive Vijay Sribastaba and head chef Sukha Mann, who worked with Sareen at Kababeque. Sribastaba comes to Saffron via Florida with stops in London, Sareen said.
The three men mixed and matched their opinions of Indian food until they came up with a menu that balances traditional fare with modern sensibilities. Sareen’s idea of modern rests mostly in presentation and ambience, he explained. For the most part, classic dishes like aloo matar paneer ($10.95), a stew of potatoes, peas and homemade cheese, are left to their classic devices.
In the aloo matar, the paneer — a homemade non-melting farmer cheese — had a texture that crossed mozzarella and tofu on one visit. The paneer was tender and softer to the tongue on a second visit a week later in the paneer tikka masala ($10.95), where it crowded a bowl of creamy tomato sauce gently kissed with coriander and ginger.
Distinctive spices like coriander, cardamom, turmeric and tamarind are doled out with a steady hand. The korma ($11.95) with chicken was a luxuriantly rich cream sauce with a hint of coriander and a whisper of sweet heat from the marriage of cumin and crushed red pepper. Ginger and cilantro nicely accentuated the deep-fried vegetable pakoras ($4.25).
The hand was heavier with the coriander in the aloo tikki ($4.95). The spice nearly overpowered the potato and peas in a lightly pan-fried, thick fritter that was a tad dry on a recent Friday night.
Perfection came to the table on the sizzling platter of lamb chops. Two meaty chops are cooked in a tandoori oven after spending the night in a marinade of 20 fresh herbs and spices including chile and cilantro powders, garam marsala and fresh papaya. You could cut the chops with a fork, and the spices permeated the meat, adding a flash of sweetness that erased any hint of gaminess that can taint lamb.
Desserts included a rice pudding ($3.95) made with caramelized basmati and sweetened with raisins. The basmati didn’t have the heft of regular rice, but the pudding was flecked with ground almonds and toasted pistachios, adding an earthy hue.