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Thursday, June 30, 2011

Zaafaran's Intriguing Combination of Indian and Thai Cuisine

Elegant atmosphere sets the stage for a memorable meal

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The location at 780 N. Jefferson St. would seem to be a prime spot, but it has proven difficult for restaurants. In recent years it has been home to Singha II, Los Mitos and Ed Debevic's—all part of restaurant history. But never give up on a promising site, especially with the new contender, Zaafaran, which offers a hybrid of East Indian and Thai cuisine.

What is especially interesting is that Zaafaran is the first American outpost of the Royal Orchid Resort, based in Pattaya, Thailand. In accordance with such an ambitious move, the interior has been thoroughly renovated. The front areas offer a bar and lounge seating by the windows. Cool, soothing blue contrasts with deep brown woodwork. The rear dining room features the back side of the bar and an annex with equipment for a lunch buffet. In addition, Zaafaran offers private dining rooms and outdoor seating. This is far beyond what you will find at most Indian or Thai restaurants.

Diners will find rewards among the Thai and Indian menu options as well.

For Indian fare, start with pakora ($6), vegetable fritters that are light in character. They are a touch spicier than the norm, but can be cooled off with the accompanying mint yogurt sauce.

The Thai route could begin with kung chup pang thod ($9), battered prawns with green mango salad and saffron aioli. The mango salad is a hit. The mangos, which the menu calls green but which are at the perfection of ripeness, are accompanied by cilantro, flat-leaf parsley and scallions in this delightful starter.

The soups are Thai. One option is tom yum ($6), a slightly different version of the spicy and sour shrimp soup found on all Thai menus. In a wise move by the kitchen, the shrimp, shelled and minus the tail, have a lightly grilled flavor. The serving is topped with cilantro leaves and enoki mushrooms—the mushrooms are a surprisingly good fit.

Another Thai starter is nuea nam tek ($10), spicy beef salad. This version is on the mild side, with grilled beef cut to the size of matchsticks and separated from cucumbers with mint and thin slices of red chile pepper. Lime vinaigrette is below. The dish also offers plenty of garlic.

When it comes to entrees, Indian food is in the majority. The servings are not very large, which is typical of Indian restaurants, so you should order multiple items.

The dal makhini ($10) should delight any vegetarian. It consists of black lentils with tomato, fenugreek and just the right punch of hot chile pepper—solid Indian flavors.

Butter chicken ($10) is aptly named, with boneless pieces of meat in a rich tomato sauce. It is sinfully good.

The seekh kebab ($15) is a trio of minced lamb skewers. The lamb is cooked on the rare side, which is good, as most Indian restaurants prepare it too well done. The dish is served with a simple pilaf of basmati rice and intriguing mint chutney.

The lounge is a destination in and of itself, an elegant place in which to relax. Try the specialty drink called Calcutta—Zaafaran's version of a mojito.

The lunch buffet, featuring all Indian food, is gaining in popularity. It provides great options for vegetarians.

Let's hope Zaafaran finds success on Jefferson Street. The restaurant has one of the most novel menus in some time, and the setting is of cool, restrained elegance—an urban oasis in Milwaukee.

Zaafaran

780 N. Jefferson St.

(414) 226-2660

$$-$$$

Credit Cards: All Major

Handicap accessible

zaafaran.us.com

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