Carnivores dating vegetarians. They go together about as well as milk and lemon, Alaskan beauty queens and New York liberals, alcohol and text messaging. Which is to say the combination, though horribly problematic, creates something so fiery, so alive with pent-up energy, the sparks could become an alternative to fossil fuels. I feel the same way whenever I dine out with my vegetarian girlfriend, whom I inadvertently turned on to the meatless lifestyle when we first began dating. In some strange mix of worldly balance and fate, just as she unveiled the decision to respect animal life, I decided I'd had about enough of it. I acquiesced to the lusty draw of flesh, seared to a bright-red medium rare and still screaming from slaughter, and never looked back.
Picking a place where we can dine together can be a chore. She would resign herself to a lifetime of cream-covered pasta (hold the chicken) if it meant I could enjoy a nice piece of snapper. But I hold tight to the notion that she should be able to eat an actual meal wherever we go and not just a succession of side dishes. One of the only cuisine that can satisfy both of those requirements is Indian. Our go-to meal is channa masala, crispy samosas with potato and peas, and vindaloo with the deep, rich color of lava.
For a year or so, we've been indulging those communions of meat and veg at Saffron, a 5-year-old Indian restaurant in the Village Commons of West Palm Beach. The place has a reputation for unevenness — ask ten people about the restaurant and you'll get experiences ranging from meh to sheer bliss. We keep going back, however, to test the lottery with bowls of stir-fried chicken do-piaja flecked with chilies, curry leaf, and the fragrant, crushed hulls of coriander and mustard seed; and vegetable korma, touched with the soothing call of cream and laced with slivers of almond and plump, golden raisins. And we have never been disappointed — in the food or in the lovely atmosphere, a dimly lit dining hall punctuated by palatial cherry-wood banquettes shaded with sheer pink curtains and overseen by a doting, tuxedoed staff.
And so it went until our last visit a few weekends ago. When we arrived, owner Mike Hussain was scurrying about the dining room nervously, his bald pate capturing and refracting light as he conducted his waitrons. We passed him and the white-cloth tables dotted with plastic roses by and sunk deeply into the plush, leather-backed seats of a private booth at the far end of the restaurant. The place was busy on Saturday night, half-full with Indian families sharing sizzling platters of tandoori chicken and couples busy making romantic evenings of their own.
We ordered a large bottle of Haywards 5000 ($8.95), a yeasty Indian beer with a fruity, carbonated zing. It goes great with Saffron's offering of crisp and greaseless papad, airy thin wafers of lentil flecked with black pepper and coriander that serve as scoops for chutney. I'm partial to the brick-red-onion variety — spicy and sweet with tomato, chili, and vinegar.
On each of our visits, the staff has been gracious and unerringly helpful, offering suggestions and explanations of the menu's 50-odd items. This isn't just a courtesy; it's necessary when the menu describes two separate dishes as "lamb cooked with Indian spices in spice flavored sauce" versus "lamb cooked with spice flavored curry sauce." But this time, when I asked our waiter to elaborate on the gosht bhunna, he shook his head and avoided the question. "You should try the lamb madras instead," he said. "You'll like it better."
I wasn't sold. "Lamb pieces with spices and coconut" didn't really sound like what I was after — I wanted heat, the slow-blooming kind that would smolder like a coal in my chest for the rest of the night. "Trust me," he reiterated, sticking to the talking points, "you'll like it better." I decided to take his persistent advice as well as an order of chicken curry ($14.95), navrattan shahi korma ($12.95), and baigan bhartha ($13.95). Nearby, owner Hussain was becoming a bit more frantic as he directed his employees to quickly clear down tables and reorganize them around the room.
Our meal arrived within mere minutes of placing our order. The idea of languishing in our private booth, enjoying each other's time and company, seemed suddenly shot to hell as an entourage of waiters delivered our buttered naan ($2.95), our trays of rice and curries, and fresh waters. Suddenly they seemed in a hurry. "Can we get you anything else? Are you sure? How about now?" Maybe it was simply attentive service. But somehow I felt, well, rushed.
So did the food. One of the hallmarks of Saffron, or so I thought, was dishes that tasted alive. There was nothing inspired about the pile of gosht madras I was served ($15.95). It was a pallid brown, hardly spicy, and lacked any sort of fresh zing of chopped cilantro or tart vinegar. The lamb too was dry and depleted. My girlfriend felt the same way about her baigan bhartha, a dish that should have exploded with the aroma of roasted eggplant but instead was mired in dull mediocrity.
There was some good: The korma was packed with green beans, cauliflower, peas, potatoes, and Indian cheese, each toothy enough to suggest fresh preparation. The buttered naan was damned near flawless, and the basmati rice had an earthy presence of toasted cumin. But neither was enough to save the madras.
As I picked through the equally uninspired chicken curry, dozens of people filtered in the front door. They were decked out in lavish suits and head-to-tail flowing, elaborate saris. There were elegant jade ones crusted with sequins, red gowns with gold embroidery, and yellow and pink sunbursts looking every bit like the Florida sky at nightfall. I grabbed our waiter as he rushed by and asked him if this was a wedding party. He nodded yes and rushed off to set up two red-and-white-trimmed thrones in the center of the room. I thought back to my waiter's suggestion and wondered: Did he push a dish on us premade for the wedding? It didn't help that, as we finished our subpar meals, we weren't offered dessert. The check was just hastily dropped, gratuity included.
I would've been more disappointed, but just then, the bride and groom walked in and took their seats on the thrones. He was handsome, dapper, and gentlemanly, with skin the color of rich chai. She was gorgeous and glowing in a vibrant red sari frocked in golden jewelry. They looked incredibly happy, and so did their huge party, which by now was filling every corner of the restaurant. We quietly sneaked by and gave a wave to them as we walked out. We finally had that uneven Saffron experience so many people had warned about. I wasn't upset, though. What was supposed to be our romantic night ended up being someone else's magical one instead.