The Rack of Lamb at Saffron's.

Saffron’s, a long-term keeper

Just over a month ago I spoke with joy of the memorable rice ball experience at Silvio’s. I love Italian rice balls! Two-bite rounds of deliciously spiced and seasoned rice, rendered crunchy and crusty, served with a savory sauce? Rice balls make a great appetizer, not to mention the ultimate bar snack.

And now I’m here to tell you about another rice ball, the Persian-accented, herb-scented kofteh berengee (herbed rice balls) at Saffron’s.

Utterly different but every bit as appetizing as the Italian item, these spheroids start with long-grained, floral-scented basmati rice, I believe – a pilaf to the Italians’ risotto – and meld them gently with fine-chopped sabzi, the aromatic blend of peppery parsley, tender watercress and hauntingly aromatic tarragon that’s one of the joys of Persian cuisine.

berengee (herbed rice balls) at Saffron’s.
berengee (herbed rice balls) at Saffron’s.
Fried crunchy yet light and grease-free and served with a fresh tomato sauce that’s lighter than marinara, they’re complex and compelling, and somewhat mysterious. Their careful construction and thoughtful flavors bespeak the approach to fine Persian dining that makes Saffron’s a long-term keeper.

Saffron’s was founded in 2001 by restaurateur Majid Ghavami, who was among a number of Iranian students who came to Louisville in the 1970s to study at UofL, and remained in the U.S. when the Ayatollah came to Iran. Quite a few of them later took jobs at the storied Casa Grisanti, adding a healthy leavening to the city’s restaurant culture. Ghavami’s leadership and genial front-of-the-house presence made Saffron’s a hit. He moved on to run Volare, and later opened Majid’s. But he left Saffron’s in the hands of a friend, Reza Dabbagh, and it’s still going strong.

The decor has remained fairly constant, textured saffron-color walls, and saffron-color cloth napkins, too; white tablecloths with quality flatware. It’s quiet, discreet; spared from an excess of elegance by an eclectic collection of art that ranges from several close-ups of flowers to a couple of variant Last Suppers and a bas-relief woman on a horse who I take to be Lady Godiva.

A small bar in the rear dispenses from short wine and beer lists and a selection of creative cocktails. I had to try the ever-so-artisanal Lavender Sazerac ($11), an anise-scented golden fluid fashioned from Vermont’s Whistlepig Rye, Louisville’s own Copper & Kings Lavender Absinthe and aromatics.

Separate but similar lunch and dinner menus offer a good range of traditional Persian dishes. Our evening visit offered about 15 main dishes, categorized as “From the Land,” “From the Sea,” and “Persian Stews (Khoresht),” with prices clustering in a narrow range from $17 to $19; an entree-size Greek salad is $15. Most of the eight apps are $7, with a fascinating starter of grilled, lime-marinated quail (Beldercheen) for $9. (Lunch entrees are mostly $j9 to $12)

Meals at Saffron’s begin with a complimentary plate of sabzi, Persia’s answer to chips and salsa. Dip into a mound of fresh herb mix; add a radish and a block of earthy feta cheese, and pop it into a pita quarter. Devour, repeat.

Tabouleh ($6) was different from the parsley-heavy Levantine version, but I like this better: It’s predominantly bulghur, backed up by parsley, not the other way around, flavored with onion, tomato and lemony-tart olive oil.

Lamb is big in Persian cuisine, and it’s worth a try at Saffron’s even if you think you don’t like it. We had a hard time deciding between the tender, falling-off-the-bone braised lamb shank (mahicheh, $19), and the rack of New Zealand lamb ($25 for a four-chop half-rack, $38 for a full rack). Going with the latter, we were rewarded with juicy, appropriately gamey bone-on grilled chops, medium-rare as ordered and sprinkled with smoky purple sumac powder, a trademark Persian spice, It came with Persian-style basmati rice, flavored with lemon zest and olive oil and seasoned with herbs and saffron.

Veggies grilled on a skewer – tomatoes and green peppers, zucchini and mushrooms dusted with piquant spice – accompanied the lamb and a plate of Fesenjoon Khoresht ($17), a savory meatless stew with exotic flavors from its unusual mix of crushed walnuts, deeply browned onion and sweet-tart pomegranate paste.
?Saffron’s homemade ice cream ($6) is always a hit. Creamy and rich, pale gold, it melds subtle flavors of saffron and pistachio with a surprising aromatic rosewater scent.

Dinner for two was $82.68, with a 20 percent tip for our server, Victor, who also doubled as bartender and mixologist, pushing it to the century mark.

Saffron’s Persian Restaurant
131 W. Market St.
Robin Garr’s rating: 90 points