A Kosher purveyor of vegetarian food, Saffron (81 Lexington Avenue, at 26th Street; 696-5130), which opened in May, has insinuated itself into its neighborhood -- north of Madison Square, aka NoMad -- with a Janus-like efficacy: It notionally faces Tabla, the swish and hugely chic Madison Square Indian newcomer, and also the Indian restaurants that long have quietly flourished in this neck of the woods (sometimes known as Curry Hill). Bright and uncluttered, Saffron has none of the murky introspection that beglooms so many of the local yokels; nor, though it specializes with great success in the fashionable cuisine of southern India, does it have any of the Wallpaper* chic of the West Village's Surya, or its bothersome hoopla.
The key to southern-Indian cooking is to create an all-conquering allspice that will impart flavors and aromas to dishes in the absence of ghee. At Saffron, varying mixtures of turmeric, paprika, cloves, black pepper, bay leaves, coriander, cumin seed, saffron (of course), and other mouth-waterers are deployed to great effect. Everything I tasted here tasted good. Everything. The breakfast snack idli (steamed-rice-and-lentil patties dusted with cumin and chili; $3.95) was spongy and sour and well matched with a green spicy coconut chutney. Tomato uttappam ($5.95), a large pancake of lentil and rice flour, functioned as a delicious tomato-and-coriander pizza. And hara bhara kebabs ($3.95) -- veggie-burgers of spinach, green peas, and potato -- were delicately spicy and moist.
The entrées? Again: all-singing, all-dancing. The crêpelike saffron dosa ($8.95) floats into view like a giant stingray and is mottled with yellow stains of subtle, addictive mustardy saffron. The masala dosa ($7.95) is a spectacular Times of India-size lentil-and-rice crêpe filled with potatoes, carrots, onions, and nuts. The Saffron khas ($14.95) is a thali plate offering cheese (homemade from kosher milk), yellow rice, potato and pea curry (spicy), okra curry, spicy lotus-root, mango mousse, palate-cleansing yogurt and cucumber, plus two baggy pooris. On it goes: pindi chole ($8.95) are chickpeas cooked from Mother's recipe from the Punjab (Saffron does not limit itself to southern-Indian dishes); daal makhani ($8.95) are black lentils in a spicy cream sauce that features fresh ginger and green chili.
If you can attract the attention of the staff -- an extra busperson or three would not go amiss in this leisurely family-run restaurant -- you could do worse than ordering some dessert: gazar halwa ($3.95) is a deliciously moist carrot cake infused with saffron, orange, rose water, and cardamom.
Saffron has no liquor license, but, as at Pat Pong, ingenious relief is at hand. Sip a falooda rose-water milkshake ($3.45) or a Madras lassi ($2.95), a strained-yogurt drink that, mildly seasoned with garlic, green chilis, and coriander, is a true thirst-buster for NoMadians or, indeed, nomads from other parts of town.
Saffron is open Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, noon to 10:30 p.m. All major credit cards.