It was February when we announced that Saffron Modern Indian Dining, a new upscale farm-to-table Indian concept, would be coming to 223 N. Water St. in the Historic Third Ward.
But the wait is nearly over, as Saffron prepares to open to the public for both lunch and dinner beginning Saturday, June 4.
And there’s much to look forward to at the new restaurant, which promises not only a fresh take on the bold flavors of regional Indian cuisine, but also an unmatched dining experience.
Behind the family-owned restaurant are local operators Fatima and Hanish Kumar in partnership with Hanish’s brother Manish and his wife Amrita, who live in New York. Together, the couples have collaborated on a concept that aims to challenge the way diners view modern Indian fare.
“Our ambitions are large,” says Fatima Kumar. “And our goal is to create loyal customers. We want everyone to leave happy. We want them to leave thinking that our food was delicious, that we were kind and that they can’t wait to come back.”
Take a peek
If you visited Rivalry Bar during its brief stint in the space, or enjoyed the Italian fare from Rustico, you’ll be surprised by the transformation of the narrow, formerly dimly lit space.
Cream city brick forms the foundation of the chic space, which is decorated with antique brass mirrors and sconces and pretty earth-toned tapestries.
Banquette seating against the north wall pulls in deep blues and teal, alongside dark wooden tables. Meanwhile two tops toward the back of the restaurant allow flexibility for accommodating larger groups and families.
“We want you to bring your family,” says Fatima, “and we want to feed all of you things that you will enjoy, so we’ve created our restaurant to be accommodating to families, including those with children.”
Meanwhile, an eye-catching mural custom designed for the space by artist Jenny Vyas provides visual interest along the curve of the restaurant’s southern wall.
The bar, which seats ten guests with its teal velveteen bar stools, boasts a white quartz top and custom back bar filled with not only bottles of spirits, but also decorative glass containers filled with turmeric, chiles, cardamom and other spices.
Banquet seating is also available in an area next to the bar, as well as a table along the front window which offers a full view of the bar and restaurant.
Saffron also boasts seating for about 20 on their back patio, which overlooks the river. Fatima says their outdoor dining space will likely expand to include a sidewalk cafe this summer and (eventually) an expanded patio area along the river.
No matter why you visit or where you choose to sit, Fatima says the goal is to give you a memorable experience.
“We want every single customer to come into our space and have an exceptional experience,” she says. “And that means creating a comfortable restaurant, but also taking care of our staff. A restaurant is only as good as your staff because you remember – not only what you ate – but how the experience itself made you feel.”
On the menu
Saffron’s menu takes its inspiration from the flavors found across the Indian diaspora. Tradition is present in techniques, including the modern tandoor oven, which will be used to prepare house-made breads and dishes like tandoori salmon and grilled prawns. It's also present in the liberal use of both traditional spices and ingredients. But the dishes served will also reflect a contemporary flair that will set the restaurant apart from others in the market.
“This is something new that we are bringing to the city,” notes Manish Kumar. “And it’s a concept we’ve been working on for years. When Fatima and
"We’d venture out to different restaurants and order everything on the menu – and not just Indian fare. It was about eating as much food as we could and then taking the best of everything and pulling it together.”
A base of signature dishes will form the foundation of the menu, plus a rotating selection of appetizers and seasonal accompaniments. In its entirety, it will reflect a commitment to both local sourcing and high quality, locally butchered proteins. Thanks to a kitchen filled with chefs from various regions in India, the menu will also represent a variety of flavor profiles, including some not currently found in Milwaukee.
The menu will also cater to a wide swath of diners with options that are plant-based, nut-free, dairy-free and gluten-free. Pricing ranges from $12-18 for shareable plates and $24-32 for entrees.
Shareable small plates include snackable options like crispy sweet lotus root with smoked paprika, cilantro and lemon; and spinach chaat featuring ultra light crisp fried spinach with sweet mango chutney, chili lime dust and yogurt.
There are also fusion items like pulled tandoori chicken bao buns; shrimp tawa tacos; a samosa sampler featuring more traditional punjabi samosa along with jalapeno and cheese; and a mezze platter featuring eggplant, hummus and housemade fig na’an.
Speaking of breads, you’ll find a variety of housemade na’an from plain and garlic to truffled. There is also roti, chili cheese kulcha, lacha paratha and gluten-free bread as well.
Entrees run the gamut from cardamom-brined Malai lamb chops and The Bishop’s Tikka (featuring saffron-scented house cottage cheese) prepared in the tandoori oven to twists on familiar dishes like Saffron butter chicken with smoked chicken.
There is plant based jackfruit and vegetable biryani; Mughlai chicken korma with black cardamom and saffron-cashew sauce; and truffle goat stew with appam comprised of garlicky goat and a coconut-based baby vegetable curry augmented with truffle and served with rice crepes.
There is also a selection of both modern and traditional dessert choices, from carrot cake with triple mango ice cream to a platter of gulab jamun and rasmalai.
“We all love food,” says Amrita Kumar. “And we’ve created a menu that we hope will make people as excited about the food as we are.”
At the bar
The bar offerings are equally distinctive. Corey Ochoa, a bartender whose past includes work with Goodkind and The Outsider, heads up the beverage program, which centers on playful cocktail riffs using fruits and Indian spices.
“Goodkind was so food-forward in their cocktail program,” she says. “And that really impacted the way that I work. I’m approaching things similarly here, constantly in conversation with the chefs in the kitchen and constantly thinking about ways to incorporate those flavors into my drinks.”
Options include the Mumbai Pisco Sour, a riff on the classic that incorporates the sour, earthy flavors of green mango and frothy aquafaba in place of the usual egg white; the Garden Gimlet, which embraces the savory with fresh vegetal and herbal notes; and the Saffron Old Fashioned, which uses vanilla-infused Woodford Reserve as the backbone against the bright earthy notes of saffron, cardamom, and coriander in Apologue saffron liqueur.
Ochoa has also created a list of six equally compelling mocktails from a Mango Basil Shrub using fresh mango puree, Siren Shrub basil and Press seltzer to the Fermented Pineapple, a complex spice-infused tonic that’s perfect for enjoying on the patio.
Fatima says they’re currently establishing a small garden just off of the back patio where they will grow herbs, primarily for use at the bar but also on a small scale for the kitchen.
“When people go out to dinner, there is an expectation that they will have a great time,” says Manish. “We want to ensure that those expectations are met. We want people to come here and take photos. We want them to have a conversation about the food at the table. We want them to leave with a smile on their faces and a desire to come back.”
Starting June 4, Saffron will be open Tuesday through Thursday from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. (lunch) and 5 to 9:30 p.m. (dinner), Friday and Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. (lunch) and 5 to 10 p.m. (dinner) and Sunday from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. (lunch) and 5 to 9:30 p.m. (dinner).
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.