The murals on the wall feature tidy little piles of bright orange threads. They are the restaurant's namesake spice, saffron, a pound of which requires the manual extraction of filament-like stigmas from the center of 75,000 crocuses. A football field of flowers is needed to get a pound of this earthy, haylike spice. No surprise that it's costly and rare, but as a namesake, it's not a perfect fit.
Saffron Indian Cuisine is certainly not costly, and good Indian food in New Tampa is increasingly common given the growing Indian population. Still, Sunita Chheda's small, strip-mall restaurant, opened in 2008 across from the New Tampa Library, is a find.
In the kitchen, Chheda is bold, unafraid of serious spiciness. But her heat is not a straightforward hurts-so-good kind of thing. It's nuanced, the flavorful food relying on a cumulative effect to get you sniffling. She presides over an ambitious menu, her skills equally devoted to the tandoor, veggies and pulses, and a broad lineup of savory lamb and goat dishes.
But first, there are some shortcomings that must be overlooked. The staff is small, and there tends to be no one to greet you at the door. My suggestion: Put out a "seat yourself" sign so would-be customers don't stand there waffling. The young folks on the service staff need a good deal more training in the nuts and bolts of the job. Efficiency is good, but niceness counts, too. "Ready to order?" is not a satisfying salutation.
Tempting as they are, go light on the appetizers to leave room for breads and hearty curries. Spinning traditional samosas even better, samosa chat ($5.50) brings fried potato-pea pastries topped with spicy chana masala (a tomatoey chickpea curry also offered by itself, $9.95), a swirl of yogurt and a bit of sweet tamarind sauce. For another crunchy starter, chickpea-battered pakora are offered in chicken ($6.90), onion ($4.95), paneer (planks of spongy Indian cottage cheese, $6.50) and mixed veggie ($4.50), all expertly fried in clean-tasting oil.
From here, choose your breads and a mess of shared entrees (serving tureens are deceptive — they look small but manage to feed several people each). Traditional naan, roti, paratha and ballooning poori are all tempting, especially the array of stuffed naan (raisin and nuts to garlic or ground lamb). A house "bread basket" includes regular naan, garlic naan and whole wheat roti, a nice sampler.
Now you need something scoopable, perhaps a tandoor-smoky roasted eggplant baingan bharta ($10.95) or creamy whole lentil daal makhni ($10.95). Ready to amp the spice? The house lamb vindaloo ($14.95) is not for the faint of heart, the meat braised until tender, just slightly musky/tangy with a big kick. For a yin/yang matchup, chicken korma ($13.95) comes mild and creamy, with the mellow sweetness of cashews and tender chicken. Alternatively, arriving on a sizzling platter, jumbo shrimp ($15.95) are hot and smoky and fresh from the tandoor.
Saffron does a brisk business, largely with Indian customers. Although the space is two rooms, a bare-bones front room seems reserved for to-go orders, so the fairly small dining room can get lively, especially as the evening progresses. Most folks are drinking mango lassi ($3.95) or housemade lemonade perked up with a bit of chat masala ($2.50), but Chheda does offer a very limited wine list for drinkers. Without wine, though, dinner can run around $15 per person, assuming you're sharing dishes, and leftovers are carefully packed up (and reheat beautifully the next day). Hardly the outlay for the world's most expensive spice, Saffron Indian Cuisine is an anytime splurge when you're in the mood for sweet heat.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses.