We have the staple Indian restaurants sprawled around Riyadh along with the upscale ones but recently, Zafran Indian Bistro came into the mix with a new and fresh take on the Indian dining experience with its contemporary interiors and fusion recipes inspired by North Western India. Teeming with teal, plush cushion seats and brown wooden furniture, the ambience is all about the up and coming, youthful and modernistic vibe. A key decor and unique facet of the restaurant is a custom-made wall art made out paper collage depicting a blend of Indian and Arab icons, history and images. It was specifically created for Zafran by Jeffar Khaldi, a famous Arab artist and as you sit in one of the booths, you can touch and marvel at this grand work of art. Janelle and I were invited to the grand opening for the press in its location at Al Rubeen Plaza about two weeks ago and if you were on the radar of our social media feeds, you’ve probably gotten a glimpse of what we’re about to show you now.
The term “Zafran” is a take on the name of the spice, Saffron, which is the most expensive spice in the whole world. The “Indian Bistro” portion may be an allusion to its featured food (Indian) and relaxed space (Bistro). We met with the Operations Manager and Head Chef who took time off their busy mingling and checked up on us from time to time asking us how the food fared. Here’s what we enjoyed:
We cracked out our papadums and tried the dips one by one. I’m a sucker for the classic mint yogurt dip so my vote kept coming back to that. The other options were a sour and sweet chutney. I also particularly enjoyed the Lentil Shorba for the deep cumin flavor that it left my palate with at every sip. It was a good way to warm up my stomach after waiting out in the cold weather for a bit during the opening. While rocket leaves are my absolute favorite, I’m afraid the balsamic honey dressing was quite strong and overpowering in this salad. Perhaps if it weren’t so drenched in that coyingly sweet dressing, then I would have enjoyed it more.
Now here’s an interesting appetizer I have never seen before: deep fried yogurt and coriander dumplings. It was a blend our sour and salty but the coriander herbs infused in it balanced everything out. I found this dish to be inventive and exciting. It is their take on Dahi Vada, which is a popular snack in India.
As we were enjoying our appetizers, the waiters arrived and served us with plates of their deeply marinated and flavorful kebabs: Bhatti Chicken and Zafrani Jhinga. The Bhatti Chicken was rich in cloves, cinnamon and anise flavors made milky and juicy by the yogurt that seeped within it. Meanwhile, spicy food lovers would appreciate the kick from the Tandoori Masala taste of the huge prawns from the charcoal grill. Both these kebabs get out thumbs up!
We look at the food and wonder how will we ever maintain our waistlines? Well, that’s the life of a lifestyle blogger, we say and spoon away. At this point, I need to profess my love for Dal, because it is all about butter and cream and what is good food without butter?! Needless to say, it was my favorite and I ended up having to ask the head chef for the secret recipe (which he uttered to me super fast in like 10 seconds so I can’t remember it). The Chicken Tikka Masala became Janelle’s favorite because it was very close to her own favorite: Butter Chicken. the Rogan Josh was boneless lamb cooked to tenderness with yogurt and onion gravy and…saffron. It would have been perfect if we had some rice to go with that delicious sauce, but that’s what the nans are for in Indian cuisine. We didn’t have much to say about the Palak Paneer as the cottage cheese didn’t really carry too much flavor for it to be distinct but I suppose this is an option for the vegetarian diners as it is made with just cottage cheese, spinach puree, cream and some garam masala.
The sweet ending of the night’s feast was this quaint plate of Indian treats. Rasmalai is their loose version of a cheescake that carries an ardent cardamom flavor. The Gulab Jamun on the other hand feels like it drowned in sugar syrup and rose water. My liking gravitated more on the Gajar Halwa, which is like a carrot pudding with nuts. It’s also a famous dessert item during the Diwali and Eid holidays in India.
By the end of the night, we just wanted to lie back in the soft, tall couches behind us and take a nap. We were definitely full of good food to our delight and we could still see the rest of the crowd chatting and enjoying their desserts around us. Their live kitchen was still bustling and busy as they created the country’s largest nan bread as the final feature of the evening. The restaurant’s service was attentive and cordial and we took a sneak peek into their menu and found the prices to be average, nothing too expensive. I would say it’s also a cozy place for friends and families to enjoy a weekend dinner out.
Zafran Indian Bistro
Al Rubeen Plaza, Hittin
Open from lunch, weekdays: 12pm to 12am
Weekends: 12pm to 1am