Food :: Mad about Saffron

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November 8, 2010
By: Gregory J. Scott
Gregory J. Scott

Not only was he the first Minnesotan to appear on “Iron Chef America.” He was also the youngest competitor ever; last summer, at age 25, he stepped into New York City’s Kitchen Stadium to butt chef hats with the world renowned Masaharu Morimoto, chef/owner of three Morimoto restaurants in the United States as well as restaurants in India and Japan.

And while Sameh Wadi didn’t prevail — the secret ingredient was mackerel, a staple in Morimoto’s native Japanese cuisine — the wunderkind chef behind the Warehouse District’s experimental Middle Eastern restaurant Saffron still walked away with something huge: nationwide legitimacy and respect.

“It’s funny,” he said, describing his restaurant’s business in the months since the “Iron Chef” episode ran in January. “We haven’t changed the way that we’re doing anything. But people take us more seriously, just because I was featured on the show. For me, it was an honor to be sitting there with a giant of the culinary world.”

To be taken seriously. It’s something that Wadi has had to battle for. Though he had cooked his whole life, he launched Saffron when he was only 23.

“Imagine going into a bank at 21 years old and saying, ‘Hey, I want this much money. Here’s what I want to do.’ The first few banks we went to, they just laughed at us.”

If anyone’s laughing now, it’s Saffron’s investors. All the way to the bank. As the restaurant pushes into its fourth year of operation — Saffron surged out of 2009, a bleak year that saw many sterling establishments close their doors — Wadi has expanded the business to include Spice Trail, a newly launched line of house-blended spice mixes.

And just this September, he jumped into the food truck fray, rolling his World Street Kitchen onto 5th and Nicollet. The truck, where Wadi prepares and sells street food delicacies from around the world — think Mexican corn-on-the-cob with lime mayo, cotija cheese, and house-made chili powder; a French/Vietnamese-inspired bahn mi and kafta meatball subs harkening to the Middle East — became a Downtown hot spot during its brief, month-long tenure.

The food truck experience was thrilling, Wadi says, labeling it “one of the most memorable, late-summer activities I’ve ever done in my life.”

It gave him a chance to cook in an Everyman style that differs from the high-end modernizations of Middle Eastern cuisine that he creates at Saffron. The menu does feature more traditional entrees, bigger plates like the duck breast with medjool dates and goat cheese tart with thyme. But the real treats are the “mezzes,” small plates with surprising flavor combinations meant for sharing. Of his menu, Wadi says, “It’s really a reflection of who I am. I’m Middle Eastern, but I’ve lived in this country for half of my life. So there’s a lot of influence from what’s around me. It’s Middle Eastern food as I know it.”

He goes on, “The people of the Middle East were nomadic back in the day. So they basically cooked whatever they had around them. The ingredients that they used were according to where they were living at the time. So that’s what I do.”

Saffron Restaurant & Lounge

123 N. 3rd St.
(612) 746-5533