There aren’t many Indian establishments that ring fine dining. If I asked you to think of a few, how many could you come up with? Well, it’s possible that it’s more than me…I love Indian food but I really don’t get to experience it often enough. Besides, Indian food honestly doesn’t /really/ lend itself to a fine dining treatment – the curries you get at the food court are going to be fairly similar to the same curry at Zaaffran.
Well, that’s what one would think anyway.
It’s not completely the same, Zaaffran ain’t but of course it’s not a world apart either. That said, it is still better from what I can discern with my palate. That counts for something. If you’re itching to see how high Indian cuisine can go, read on.
Date Visited: 23/09/2012
Address: Darling Drive, Darling Harbour (entry via level 1 of the Darling Harbour Shopping Complex)
Good for: alfresco dining, very high quality Indian food, special occasions!
Not good for: those with a spice-sensitive palate, lactose intolerant people
Go-to dish: Just get the banquet – you can’t go wrong with the choices
Zaaffran is definitely one for alfresco dining – being situated in a position that overlooks Darling Harbour, and on the second level to boot. Definitely one that’s only beaten by Quay-side dining. Oddly enough for us though, the night we went they had rolled down the flyscreen for some reason…so we had a view that looked like this:
Still got that view, but I don’t understand the purpose of the blinds – there wasn’t any sun to obscure, and flies could easily have made their way under…oh well whatever.
But, I’ve been to Zaaffran once before, and I’ve also taken photos then (but that was long before my food blogging days) and the ‘proper’ view you’re meant to get is as shown in the cover photo for this post. Ahhh, much better
Oh and what the heck, I’ll thrown in another pic I took (on that first visit) of the view at night.
Me and two friends, J & S went to Zaaffran as part of a special deal for a shared banquet. As I had already been once before I kinda knew what to expect. Still, there were a few surprises. Yes, they were pleasant ones. Let the banquet begin!
Oh yeah, if you ever intend to take your own food photos at Zaaffran and you’re sitting outside – you’re out of luck unless you resort to using flash or using a tripod. There is pretty much zero ambient lighting (one fake candle – which is just…yeah no). As you can see, I took the flash route (the last time I took the flash route, for that matter) this time and it shows. Sorry about that.
So immediately I’m not even going to try and explain what some of the names are – Zaaffran chooses its own names for its dishes (you’ll realise this when you Google them and can’t quite find what they are…) but you’ll be able to see what ‘class’ of food they fall into.
“Besan Vermicelli” – not really anything like the noodles you’re used to eating in soup. No, these are essentially canapé-style ‘nachos’ with a fair few toppings. They taste very nice actually – the pickled taste of the tamarind and mint bring out a spicy combination that’s almost like a salsa with an Indian twist to it. Quite satisfying – I actually wanted more of these! Spicy nachos with Indian spices, it’s a heck of a combination.
Next up we have a seafood duo of prawn and salmon. The salmon is baked, which ensured that it had a very consistently done Maillard reaction which produces a wonderful crust that breaks through easily yet still tastes like good crust should taste like. The flesh inside is consistent in its texture throughout, and overall is a decent specimen. Once again, in Indian style it’s loaded with spices and sauces – garlic and chilli-based this time and it does wonders if you’re a spice lover.
The same can be said of the prawn – fantastic texture, soaks up the flavours it was cooked in and once again, a pleasing taste. Be sure to eat both the salmon and the prawn with the yoghurt sauces – at the same time. You’ll get that same tamarind/mint/garlic taste that just oh so dances on your tongue.
Mmm. Looking good, tasting better.
So you’ve probably begun to gather that Zaaffran is big on cooking with spices and they’re definitely not afraid of holding back. Thus by this point you’d have decided whether you’ll like the food here or not based on your preference for spice. This next dish will further that opinion of yours!
I’m loving how they’re doing these in pairs – now we have a chicken and fish combination. You could imagine say, KFC chicken – and it’s no surprise that this is a hundred times better. The skin is so RICH in flavour that you really could just eat the skin over and over again (with all the health benefits *cough* to boot!). The taste of garlic and chilli spice run rampant across the entire dish and this goes for both the chicken and the Barramundi fillet which, by the way tastes funnily enough like the chicken. Yeah that was weird, but I guess I can’t complain since chicken tastes good anyway. Still, that was a funny experience…
At this point in time, the average person’s taste senses are probably getting overloaded. No kidding, spice lovers however, proceed.
The spice march continues!
We reach the main course of the banquet, where we get three curries and one curry-like dish. First up, the seafood curry. Probably my favourite one of the lot, it possesses a rich and creamy texture that is light on the spice relative to the previous dishes (but still spicy) that is just begging for naan to be dipped into it.
Naturally, I willingly obliged. The seafood inside the curry is a bit of a mix – you couldn’t really tell what was what. I didn’t really polish off the curry to see what seafood I was eating – that defeats the point. Still, it’s notable that the dish was made to a point where pretty much all individual traits of the seafood was stamped out. Then again, I ate fast and wasn’t trying to determine it.
The curry is probably better than the seafood in the curry – unlike the previous dishes, the flavours of the curry never really sank into the seafood. It’s a bit disappointing, but ultimately not a big deal.
Second up, we have the fantastic meat that is lamb, and the (somewhat) healthier part – the shank to boot! A good slow-roasted lamb shank should mean the meat can easily be pulled off the bone with minimal effort, with the meat itself tasting almost as soft as if it were pulled. Melt-in-your-mouth meat, essentially. Zaaffran did reasonably well in this department – the meat came off fairly easily (but not /too/easily) and wasn’t too fatty.
The texture is soft, but still required some force to get through – using plenty of the yoghurt sauce is going to help heaps as it ‘fills the gaps’ (so to speak) between the bits of meat. The taste itself is more tame than the previous dishes, going for a more aromatic flavour rather an a spicy one. You could taste the mildest hints of fennel, but I couldn’t discern the coriander (but it’s definitely there – it contributes partly to the colour of the sauce).
Overall, the flavour was kind of dull – symptomatic of a dinner course that was served with ill-timing.
Palak Paneer is a vegetarian curry. I thought I wouldn’t be interested in it but turns out I scooped out plenty from this bowl as well. The green colour comes from the spinach which is the main ingredient in this curry. Don’t worry if you don’t like spinach – you’re not going to taste it when it’s in this puréed form. That said, it may be unfamiliar to many since it’s not the most common way of eating spinach (funnily enough, I’m extremely familiar with it thanks to the antics of my dad’s kitchen adventures…).
The taste itself is once again quite mute. The problem is that with a vegetarian curry, your flavour is at the mercy of the curry itself as the vegetables do not have their own inherent flavour. It was here that the spice should’ve taken centre stage, but they didn’t really.
Having said all that, the delicious crunch texture of all the vegetables (I like my veggies okay…) still made it a curry I came to more often than not – texture can save the day!
By the way, speaking of that garlic naan…I found a picture of it from my first visit. Here’s what it looks like:
It’s yum yum naan. I had to stop myself from grabbing too many pieces for fear of the carbs. You know it’s good naan when that happens.
More reminiscent of a Thai curry, the finale savoury dish we’ve got is another seafood one. This one is purely prawns, and because I love prawns I swear I had over half the bowl here…hope J & S weren’t mad about that 😛
Coconut curries are yum yum, one of the kinds you can’t really go wrong with unless you put too much or too little coconut milk in. Zaaffran didn’t have a problem with this and carried out the flavours of the curry and prawns with gusto. It was creamy and spicy and you actually discern many of the ingredients used in making it. Nom.
As I said before, Zaaffran has got its prawns right and in this case it’s no different. That’s a great thing!
Finally, we arrive at dessert. It’s a nothing-special vanilla/rose ice cream. What made it interesting is the green cardamom (fun trivia: it’s the third most expensive spice in the world!) that when used in a dessert imparts a citrus-like, herbal taste. That doesn’t sound very appetising considering where this spice is placed, but lucky for you the overall impact is fairly minimal. Cardamom is ordinarily a powerful spice, but they definitely did not put much into this dessert. It’s probably a good thing they didn’t.
If you’re still thinking what it may taste like – think a particularly aromatic lemon zest. That’s what green cardamom will do to this dessert.
It’s still a decent ice cream, but too creamy – the creaminess of it tended to make it somewhat more sticky than I would have liked. The taste on the other hand is average – not that it’s a bad thing. It’s just very safe. An alright way to finish off a very spicy meal I gotta say. I think that may be what the excess cream was for (fats absorb chilli very well).
So by now you’ve come to the same conclusion I have – Zaaffran’s an awesome place to go if you like to go heavy on the spices (and already love Indian food). If you don’t like one or the other, you may want to take yourself elsewhere. But for everyone else, you should give it a shot. Oh and the prices – I’d say they’re quite reasonable considering what you get and the location (which you are paying for if you’re going to dine alfreso-style).
The Good: spice fans rejoice! Indian food-lovers rejoice!
The Bad: for everyone else, you’ll need to go somewhere else. Also some dishes not well suited to the banquet, some blander selections.
I give Zaaffran a grand total of seven and a half Caesers out of ten – 7.5/10