This article appears in the February 2012 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe, please visit Lou.com.
Odds are that if you are lucky enough to travel for work or play, many of your most romantic experiences will happen in exotic foreign locations: dining on spring lamb on the sidewalk in the old Roman town of Orange in southern France as a vast moon rises over the ancient amphitheater; taking lunch of marinated vegetables followed by fresh fish from the Bosporus in a former prison yard in Istanbul, now the Four Seasons; dining on osso buco amid the cavernous arches underpinning the Theatre of Pompey in Rome, the site of the murder of Julius Caesar.
For my wife and me, an exotic location, a sense of unhurried calm and a welcoming staff are as important — almost — as the food. Our search for that sense of exoticness and tranquillity at home sends us to Saffron’s Persian Restaurant for warmth of hospitality, oddly kitschy decor and what I, and happily my wife, consider the best dish in Louisville: its rack of lamb.
Decor first: The wall hangings range from Islamic geometric through what I can only call Persian Impressionism to photo-realistic scenes from Persian life, including a striking double-portrait of a princely couple.
Sometimes a visit marks the beginning of a night out at Actors Theatre. More often, the leisurely pace of a meal at Saffron’s encourages us to make a night of it. We begin with wonderfully scented herbal and veggie starters, including cashke bademjon, a spiced and puréed eggplant dish and flavored hummus with warm pita bread and bitter herbs, followed by chef Hamid’s baby lamb chops (a half-rack for mere mortals, a full rack for heroes), suffused with exotic spices and served on a bed of saffron rice, as lovely to look at as it is to sample — almost. The lamb chops are small but numerous, dusted with a mix of spices my waiter could not name, then grilled to order — and “rare” means rare, brown on the outside, fleshy pink, tender and succulent within.
As a special footnote, I must relate that I am no pundit on exotic spices. I once stayed at the Pera Palace Hotel in Istanbul, following in the footsteps of former residents Agatha Christie (who wrote Murder on the Orient Express there), Kemal Atatürk and glamorous spy Mata Hari, and selected my breakfast from a vegetarian buffet. I saw what looked like small hazelnuts rolled in some exotic spice from far Samarkand or another caravansary of the old spice route, helped myself to a generous portion and discovered on sampling that they were . . . Kellogg’s Coco Pops.
— Thomson Smillie