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Tikka Me Elmo 

Restaurateur charts northern Indian course in southwestern Charlotte

When Sangeeta Yadav started catering Indian weddings in Charlotte 10 years ago, she handled only two events. These days she provides dishes for 10 to 15 events each year and works in Charlotte's more prestigious hotel venues. The no-expense barred, lavish spread of Indian wedding feasts are legendary, and being able to fulfill the culinary expectations of brides and grooms has allowed Yadav to earn the reputation as an exceptional Indian wedding caterer.

But her dream had been to open a restaurant -- and last August Saffron Indian Restaurant and Bar debuted in the Ayrsley Village shopping center, off South Tryon outside I-485, an area formerly without Indian restaurants.

Like its name, Saffron is devoid of the expected sameness of many Indian restaurants. Yadav says, "I didn't want to name it New Delhi Palace or give it some other geographical name." Rather, Saffron reflects her creative take on her native cuisine.

Once inside, the crew at Saffron embraces its customers with hospitality. The music is modern while the contemporized walls are washed in yellow with a whimsical hand-painted design (by Mindy). Saffron is small enough that servers are without unchartered places to hide, yet one back corner holds an out-of-the-way booth filled with fluffy pillows where customers can be out of sight -- or at least discrete.

Taking a page from trendy London restaurants, Yadav divides Saffron's dinner menu into "Traditional" northern dishes (lamb rogan josh, curries and saag paneer); "Modern"; and "Avant Garde." The latter category presents dishes on Western-styled platters rather than in serving bowls. Thus the sauces, or gravies as they are referred to in Indian cuisine, are limited to topping proportion and the fish, meat or cheese play a dominant role. Traditional and Modern items are cooked in the tandoor and have more sauce. The menu doesn't seem overcrowded, and the portions are decorous and abundant. Vegetarian selections are offered in all categories. Saffron has a short wine list as well.

Northern Indian cooking features the tandoor, a large coal-fired clay oven used to bake flat breads (such as naan), kebabs and other meats. Note, however, that chicken tandoori is not offered at dinner at Saffron. Instead, Chicken Tikka Masala, or CTM as it is known in the United Kingdom, is the star of the traditional menu. Yadav confesses that her CTM is the most requested dish at weddings. "I'm known for my chicken tikka," she reports. But, the fact that the CTM is on her traditional menu reflects Yadav's 15-year stay in London. CTM is a melding of northern Indian tandoori chicken and a milder-tomato based -- and British preferred -- sauce, and was deemed Britain's "national dish" by a U.K. foreign secretary politician a few years ago.

Saffron dishes have a natural appeal even if the heat notes have been toned down and Yadav, perhaps through catering, has acquired a knack for terrific bar food. One starter to try, if only for its name, is papdi chaat, a northern Indian street food and the Indian equivalent of nachos. Here "chips" of fried pastry are doused with a hit of a deliciously healthy yogurt cilantro tamarind sauce, which balances the sweetness of the pastry. Another app winner is the Subz Kebab, an operatic mixture of minced vegetables roasted over charcoal and aromatically flavored with coriander, ginger, and mint.

The truth is, though, I could make a meal of northern Indian flat breads and Saffron offers a basket of roti, naan, kulcha and stuffed naan hot from the tandoor, all excellent. Pair these with Yadav's exquisitely fresh and flavorful raita, and the meal is done.

But then Saffron's entrees beg to be tasted, especially the chicken tikka masala, which has tender morsels of chicken smothered in a succulent sauce of tomato and yogurt. Or if you have matriculated beyond the traditional choices, try the tandoor roasted lamb chops zaikedar, albeit thinly cut chops (religious dietary restrictions forbid meats gushing fluids thus meat is marinated but cooked thoroughly), yet almost mysteriously both sweet and smoky.

Desserts once again show the owner's catering pedigree. The gutsy mango cheesecake rounds come two to a plate with a measure of pureed fruit on top. The creamy rice pudding is more traditional with bits of pistachio.

Dinner entrée prices range from $12 for a chicken curry to $18 for pan-seared sea bass bahaar with sautéed spinach and a coconut sesame cashew sauce.

Odds are if you like anglicized northern Indian food; you are going to like Saffron more than you think you will. If you don't like -- or think you don't like -- the melding flavors of Indian food, you'll really like Saffron's Avant Garde choices.

To contact Tricia regarding tips, compliments or complaints or to send notice of a food or wine event (at least 12 days in advance, please), opening, closing or menu change, fax Eaters' Digest at 704-944-3605, or leave voice mail at 704-522-8334, ext. 136.

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