By Kirsten Telander
I wrote about Saffron Mediterranean Kitchen for Northwest Palate several years ago, and at the time, I thought Chef/Founder Chris Ainsworth was bonkers: In the course of a year, he had moved to Walla Walla, opened Saffron, then opened Pho Sho, got married, and bought a house. I waited for his reality-show-worthy meltdown. It didn’t come. Instead, he saved his drama for the plate, and was named a semifinalist for a James Beard Foundation award (top chefs Northwest). Apparently bonkers is the new winning.
The laid-back Ainsworth was just named a semi-finalist for the fourth consecutive year, so it seemed only fitting to visit the restaurant for our inaugural Beyond Bread blog.
There is no host stand, so when you walk into Saffron, it’s as if discovering a locals-only find in Marrakech. In fact, Ainsworth, who draws inspiration from his travels, recently returned from a trip to Morocco. The restaurant has remained small despite a full reservation book since opening. Despite its minimalism, the earthy green color on one wall and exposed brick on the other, custom woodwork, and star-shaped hanging lights keep the space warm and bistro-like. Old Champagne riddling racks serve as the table bases.
I sat at the chef’s table – an intimate table for two that allows for an insider’s view of the open kitchen. Tonight was chilly, and I welcomed a view of the fire in the wood oven, and the smoky aroma of mesquite from the grill.
My dining experience was entrusted to Kim, who like the other servers, knows food and wine inside out. Because I arrived early, Ainsworth was still playing with ideas for his “verbals” – dishes he conjures on the fly. He set out a plate of arancini for the staff to try - fried saffron risotto balls stuffed with rabbit meat and mozzarella with a rustic tomato sauce. I watched as they devoured them, forks clinking together for the money bite. In the next hour, I would see him plate them up for almost every table, including mine.
Kim brought me a cone-shaped wire basket lined with crisp white paper filled with slices of dense Moroccan loaf and sourdough. A ramekin of roasted garlic was topped with a fragrant and incredibly flavorful Spanish olive oil poured from a tall, silver pitcher.
Though I usually order one of their highly original flatbreads, or several small plates, including grilled quail (even though I had one named Flo as a pet growing up), Lamb ribs, and Moroccan style beef cheeks, tonight I opted for an entrée. The menu had me at crab – Dungeness that is.
I ordered the Dungeness Crab Manti – Turkish style dumplings with stinging nettles, yogurt Aleppo pepper, sumac, lemon, and dill. The dumplings were made with thin sheets of house-made pasta, and the crab was as fresh as I’ve found anywhere. No matter what you order, all the dishes have a “Mediterrainsworth” spin, with flavor combinations – blood oranges with Egyptian dukkah, pistachios, and pickled onion – for example – that should come with a “do not try this at home” warning label.
There have been several times I have witnessed chefs and/or hardcore foodies who come to Saffron with a show me what you got attitude, or with just a curious palate that needs guiding. The servers promptly hand select dishes for them, paired with wines, only to overhear even the most fanatical foodies freak out (I’m a writer – my ears hear conversations a mile away).
Tonight, a gentleman sat at the bar and said to Kim, “Just bring me things,” and he exhausted his adjective and expletive vocabulary by the end of the courses. Surely, other diners must have said, I’ll have what he’s having.
I experienced this myself one time. I was asked to join a chef from Vancouver while he ate his way through nearly the entire menu. He was so impressed, it left him speechless, and I was left with so much epicurious overload that I had to call my husband for a ride home. Oh – and I think the wine had something to do with it.