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Spicing up the suburbs
Ankit Chopra was born and raised in Delhi and he don’t like Indian food, he loves it.
He loves it so much he came to Perth to study Tourism and Hotel Management and now he’s running a restaurant that prides itself on being a firm favourite of the WA Indian and Pakistani community.
Saffron Curry House is in the grounds of the Floreat Forum Shopping Centre but don’t let the address discourage you. The restaurant is not in the middle of a mall – it’s off to one side, in a separate building, right next door to the Boulevard Tavern.
It’s close enough to the Boulevard that at busy times the happy chatter from the beer garden can be heard, giving Saffron a cheerful sense of vibrancy and pulse that not many suburban restaurants can muster.
Inside, Saffron is sleek and chilled out. Dark walls and a wooden floor are offset by charming crystal lights and a few well-placed antique screens. One wall is all glass doors that can be opened onto its courtyard, that is defined by a little yellow wall and a neatly trimmed live hedge, over the top of which the architecture of the local library and a huge jacaranda tree can be glimpsed.
The courtyard is covered by saffron-coloured sail cloths and furnished with rattan chairs and tables, and a water feature, giving it a comfortable mellow atmosphere.
After graduating from his hospitality course in 2003, Ankit headed home to Delhi for a while but it wasn’t long before he was back in Perth cooking up a plan to start a business.
His partner in Saffron is chef Jamil Muhammad who hails from Pakistan. Ankit explains that it’s their similar but different backgrounds that inspired the variety in their menu.
Ankit describes Saffron as “completely different to other Indian restaurants in Perth food-wise”.
Asked to elaborate he says he has deliberately chosen dishes from all over India, and he hasn’t been shy to add some fusion dishes to cater for Australian tastes. As well as selecting dishes from different geographic regions, they have dipped into the subcontinent’s diverse subcultures and included Parsi, Sikh? and Punjab dishes.
Being blunt he says: “It’s just not about covering everything in the same tomato and onion-based sauce.”
In addition to lamb, beef, chicken and seafood, the restaurant has over a dozen different vegetarian dishes. Ankit explains that many Indians are vegetarian for religious reasons and so they have come up with many delicious vegetarian dishes.
He also added that everything on the menu is Halal, making it an easy choice for people with dietary requirements.
Asked about his personal favourites on the menu he chose two vegetable dishes, the Tandoori Gobi (a crunchy richly-spiced, but not too hot, cauliflower dish) that he says is on the menu because it is also his Dad’s favourite food, and the Mirchi ke Bharwa Pakore (fresh green chillies, still crunchy and fresh, covered in a crisp batter and stuffed with spiced potatoes and cottage cheese). He’s also proud that several of the dishes aren’t on the menus of any other restaurants in Perth.
Ankit’s recommendations for ordering are that two people with normal appetites should order two starters and one main, with rice and naan bread. That way they’ll get to taste three dishes between them.
The platters also offer a range of flavours and make a good starter shared between two, or a main for one person. The menu also lends itself well to sharing between a group by ordering a range of dishes for the table.
Our first favourite on the day we stopped in to taste test was the Sizzling Garlic Chilli Chicken that came hissing and popping to the table and wowed us with its bright red and green appeal and its great spicy punch. Next came Ankit’s favourite veggie dishes and we concur, they are not your typical Indian food and they were great. I especially like that the vegetables still had a bit of crunch in them, as it allowed them to balance the spice with their cooling crispness.
If there is one in your party who is spice-phobic and scared of Indian food, get them the Palak Paneer – it is like lumps of cottage cheese cooked in spinach that somehow manages to be smoother and creamier than the dairy it is surrounding. It’s a favourite on many Indian menus but Saffron’s was super creamy and delicious. The other dish for people who don’t like hot food is the Butter Chicken, and again Saffron’s is a gentle but tasty version.
We also sampled the Murgh Korma, the saffron rice and the chilli garlic naan and it all went down a treat.
Our wine recommendations for these dishes are simple. The 2011 Wine by Brad Semillon Sauvignon Blanc and 2009 Wine By Brad Cabernet Merlot (Margaret River WA) were fantastic. The white lifted the subtler dishes and made the flavours like turmeric and cardamom really pop, while the red was soft and soothing on a tongue singing out from a hot chilli adventure. Saffron also serves Indian Kingfisher and a range of local beers, along with other wines and liqueurs and spirits.
Since taking over the place in 2009, Ankit has put in stacks of work to get the restaurant to where it is now. This meant stripping back the kitchen and doing a whole lot of reconstruction, finding a new team and coaching them in the style of service he wanted to offer and then came the task of building a loyal clientele.
Ankit’s strategy has been two pronged so far. Takeaway food is a big part of the business, and local leafleting has spread the word that Saffron is a good source and it delivers to Floreat, Churchlands, Wembley, Wembley Downs, City Beach, Subiaco and Mt Claremont.
His second approach has been to win the hearts of Indians living in Perth by hosting special events like Bollywood and Diwali nights with special treats like belly dancing and live Indian music.
Is it working ? Ankit thinks so. The restaurant was a finalist in the latest Restaurant and Catering Awards.
But more importantly, he says: “A lot of Indian and Pakistani people like to eat here, and they like to stay and sit around and chat and that’s nice. They’re usually the last to leave and that’s a good feeling. That we’re making food and providing a place that they enjoy and feel comfortable with.”
Ultimately Saffron is for everyone. If the Indian and Pakistani communities keep coming back it must be good.
By Dr Kayt Davies