You don’t always need to go off the beaten track to find a decent meal, as our critic discovers on a night out at Saffron
Let me tell you a story about two entrepreneurial French brothers. Bear with me, it’s more exciting than it sounds.
It began more than 100 years ago when said brothers decided it would be a good idea to provide motorists with free handbooks featuring maps, lists of petrol garages and mechanics, and instructions on changing a tyre.
The thought was that by encouraging the use of cars the need for tyres would increase and, seeing as the guide was the brainchild of Andre and Edouard Michelin, it proved very shrewd one indeed.
First published in 1900, production of the guide was suspended during the First World War but recommenced in 1920 with the addition of a restaurant listing section to reflect the growing trend for eating out.
It quickly became a trusted bible for places selling good quality food near the roadside – and so the Michelin Guide, as we know it now, was born.
Now, finding some decent grub on the road might not be a big deal in France, or many of the other countries the guide is now published, but in the UK pickings can be slim.
There’s plenty of opportunities to call in at the Golden Arches, a few gastro pubs or Toby Carveries but opportunities for a proper, decent meal at the roadside are few and far between.
And so on to Saffron, an Indian restaurant, which sits in a very unassuming location on a busy thoroughfare in Oldbury.
Now, I am not saying Saffron is worthy of a Michelin star, but the food is certainly very fine indeed. And it’s not just me who thinks so. Take a look at the website – or the back page of menu – and you’ll find a list of accolades longer than Meryl Streep’s. One of the most notable nods was from the Good Food Guide 2010, which named Saffron ‘Best Restaurant in the Midlands’. High praise indeed since some of its competitors include Michelin star holders such as Simpsons in Edgbaston.
But it’d be so easy to miss the place and, even if you did spot it, you really could be forgiven for giving it a wide berth. Externally it’s just a white box with huge square frosted windows, one displaying the type of neon ‘open’ sign you might find on a grubby transport caff.
Things don’t get much better inside, with an interior that plays homage to a batchelor pad circa 1992. Think plenty of black and red velvet, dark wood and twinkly lights.
Ah, the lighting. Someone’s hit the dimmer switch and even though there was blaring sunshine outside the restaurant felt somewhat dingy. I felt like I was dining at 3am with the sort of fuzzy-headed blurred vision you get after a few hours on the sauce.
But, bear with me. Appearances can be decieving and, in the case of Saffron, it’s a statement that could not be more true.
We started our meal with some good, fresh poppadums, which arrived warm – always a good sign in my book.
There were plenty of chutneys too – no half measures – and they weren’t overly gloopy or synthetic.
We supped our drinks – him a pint of Cobra beer and me a bottle of San Pellegrino – while we considered the menu. There’s loads of choice and we had to politely usher the very smiley staff away a few times while we made our choices.
The fish starters looked particularly tempting with options including sea bass roulade with fruit salsa, pan-fried scallops with cauliflower and red pepper relish, and the salmon and crab cakes. There’s also some more unusual options such as rabbit tossed with onion, spices and curry leaves.
However, since it was a baking 80 degrees in the world outside I was attracted to the cold starters and opted for the papdi chat – a salad of crispy fried wheat, potato chunks and chickpeas. It was the words ‘fried wheat’ that did it and my instincts served me well as this salad was prettily decorated in teeny triangles of the crispiest pastry. It was like the best bits of a samosa – which was probably the best way to describe the dish; an inside-out samosa lavished in cooling yogurt and tangy tamarind dressing. Perfect for a hot day.
The other half also opted a spud-centred starter with the masala dosa. His crisp, wafer-thin rice pancake stuffed with potato and fresh whole spices seriously impressed. It came with with traditional sides of sambar and coconut chutney, which I could not help but dip into.
Impressed and temporarily sated our empty plates were whisked away efficiently and it was on to the main event, although we were given a reasonable break to make like Loyd Grossman in 1990s Masterchef and deliberate, cogitate and digest.
Considering it was early evening on one of the hottest days of the year so far the restaurant was surprisingly busy. Clearly the good word about Saffron is already out there, and it provided a very pleasant atmosphere to enjoy our drinks while anticipating the next round.
Unable to make our main course choices individually, we opted for a number of dishes to share, all of which arrived appetisingly served in chunky white bowls. The portions were generous without being overfacing.
First up was the beef dalcha – a Hyderabad speciality, apparently. The meat had been slow-cooked and was meltingly tender while its lentil-enriched sauce with fresh curry leaves and the sweet garlic provided ultimately satisfying. It felt healthy yet comforting; rich without the unappetising slick of oil often shimmering atop Indian food.
We also opted for a main course of palak paneer – Indian cottage cheese with spinach, cumin and yet more garlic. We’d certainly be fending off the vampires, that’s for sure. The cheese was firm yet yielding and well coated with spinachy goodness. Popeye would be proud.
A side order of khatte baignan, or aubergine curry, was to die for. Bathed in a coconutty sauce, the wedges of vegetable were skillfully cooked for soft perfection – no rogue, unpleasantly tough pieces here. There were plenty more fresh curry leaves in the gravy – one ingredient surprisingly absent from many curry house dishes.
We accompanied our meal with a classic naan bread, cumin-spiced rice and some mango chutney. All exceeded expectation, in particular the pleasantly doughy naan which was just irresistable when dipped into the aubergine curry.
I’d like to say that desert was as delectable but I’d be fibbing – it was an out-and-out disaster.
Despite having very full tummies we ploughed on in the interest of research and chose the homemade pistachio kulfi.
However, for those with room there’s plenty to chose from including poached pears with cardamon scented rice kheer, and carrot halwa with lime zest soft cream cheese.
The kulfis arrival was underwhelming. It appeared before us in a tiny white ramekin without flourish or ceremony. On a stark white plate, on our now empty mahogany table, it looked rather sad.
Eating it proved even more disappointing. It was rock hard and impossible to get a spoon into without turning on the Uri Geller. So we waited patiently for the kulfi to melt but it refused to play ball so we carried on regardless.
The texture was horrible gritty akin to eating an icecream on the beach after a ferocious by a gust of wind. There was absolutely no pleasure to be had so we left the remaining dessert and asked for the bill.
It was an unsatisfactory end to a very pleasant meal. I’d love to award Saffron three-and-a-half stars but the pudding, dim lighting and dated interior knock it down to three stars.
The bill came in at £47 which included a pint-and-a-half of Cobra and a large bottle of San Pelligrino. I felt it was surprisingly reasonable for such quality food, although you could easily push the boat out and opt for more expensive dishes such as the £21.95 lobster peri-peri.
So next time you hit the road, I suggest you pay Saffron a visit. In fact, I suggest you make a special journey there. You won’t just be keeping the Michelin family in business because you’ll never tyre of eating there.
Saffron, Wolverhampton Road, Oldbury, B69 4RR