Saffron Indian Cafe & Grill
Exotic North Indian eating on Kihei’s south shore
There’s no getting around the fact that we don’t have much Indian cuisine in Hawaii. It’s almost out of our comfort zone, a surprising fact given the melting pot of Asian, Polynesian and fusion available. Thankfully, Saffron Indian Cafe and Grill is giving us a chance to redeem and expand our food palates with their fresh and authentic dishes served at reasonable prices.
Saffron opened on the first of August in the old Maui Masala location in Kihei’s Dolphin Plaza. But the place resembles nothing of its former self. New paint, tables and a whole new set-up have completely transformed the place into an inviting little sit-down service cafe. Owner RJ Dhillon has been a willing ambassador for his Northern Indian cuisine created by Chef Ram Verma for casual service and take-out. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, for RJ is not offended by the fact we know nothing of his food. He is more than ready to guide us on our journey.
India is huge and there have been many interactions with neighboring Mohgul, Persian and Asian cultures. The yellow turmeric and saffron colors instantly give away iconic Indian dishes, as do their use of their spice mixtures. At Saffron, the spices come direct from India, and Chef Verma mixes and grinds his own special blends so the flavors of their dishes are authentic and unique. I was treated to a tour of their kitchen to investigate these mysterious and delicious smelling seeds and herbs on their way to being ground into the flavor that give these dishes their Indian edge.
One discovery while back in the kitchen was their homemade dough, and the unique way they bake bread in the clay oven. Naan is an absolutely divine bread – crisp and smoky on the outside, fluffed and delicate inside. You can get it in roasted garlic, cheese, pesto and Kashmiri flavors. You will also find roti, kulcha and paratha as well in Saffron’s bread department.
At lunch they serve wraps from 11am to 2pm, and these are a coveted dish. Saffron makes the wrap bread by hand and grills it to order. The remarkable combination of vegetables, meat and sauce roll into a hand-held lunch is like no other on Maui.
Cruising through the pupu menu I chanced on the Gobi Manchuria, which is one of their fusion dishes inspired by Asian cuisine. It’s a tangy and spicy sauce, slightly reminiscent of sweet Thai chili over cauliflower and other veggies. Other pupus that caught my attention were samosas (savory pockets of spiced potatoes and peas) and pakoras (veggies dipped in chick pea flour and lightly fried). And there are seven different chutneys to pair with your pupus. Of those, the tamarind, mango and avocado/cilantro added amazing flavors to the samosas.
Their curry is a southern-inspired dish, infusing fresh ground turmeric with other spices, and you can get it mild to medium. Vindaloo originates from Bombay as a rich meat and potatoes dish, served with a gravy sauce. Kormas are creamier, with coconut milk and yogurt, a northern specialty. Saag is a pureed spinach-based sauce. All of these are available in chicken, lamb, fish or tiger prawn versions and all are served with field green salads and basmati rice.
RJ says that if you don’t enjoy curry dishes, then try the Chicken Tikka Masala. He consideres the grilled barbecue nature of the Tikka a safe dish for anyone new to the cuisine. Its juicy grilled meat is a contrast to the other braised and softer meats.
What I really respect about this menu is RJ has not dumbed it down. Yes, at first I had to ask questions, since I didn’t know the terminology or the dishes. But now I’ve learned the menu is good enough to come back for more. For the month of October you can expect daily chef’s specials on organic vegan items, daily lunch specials and kama’aina discounts. Just ask!
Short Glossary of Indian food terms:
• Pakoras: The ultimate Indian snack, similar to our tempura but lighter. Veggies are dredged in garbanzo bean flour and fried – even veggies like spinach leaves.
• Tikka: Barbecued chicken usually served in a Masala sauce. There are many different kinds of masala, but Saffron describes the Tikka masala as creamy.
• Dal Makhani: Dal means lentils, a staple ingredient in the Indian diet. Makhani means butter. These are slow-cooked lentils generously flavored with butter. Saffron’s version features tomatoes and cream.
• Naan: Fresh, clay-baked bread, which comes in round shapes. There are seven flavors on Saffron’s menu.
• Paneer: Cheese. Saffron makes their own cheese from scratch. It’s similar to mozzarella and just as delicious. Find it in the Saag and Shahi paneer, and some of the other dishes and wraps.
2395 S. Kihei Road, Dolphin Plaza
Closed Monday. Open Tues through Sunday 11 am to 9 pm.
Facebook: saffron Indian Cafe & Grill.
About Jen Russo
I write lifestyle and culinary columns for MauiTime. I love being a Maui girl and adore my big family. Dedicated food taster, blogger, internet fanatic, and Maui and Hawaii specialist.