Flavour fusion in Thorncliffe

“Are we in the right place?” my fiancé asks looking confused. The signs outside say Saffron Mantra but the inside looks more like an aging sports bar than an Indian-French fusion restaurant. Seeing the logos on the menu covers put us at ease that yes this is the right place.

The menu reads like something you’d expect at a sports bar as well with appetizers burgers sandwiches and flatbreads along with some larger entrees. On closer examination though almost all of the items have a bit of an Indian twist — instead of tomatoes on toasted baguette slices the bruschetta features a spiced chicken liver pâté spread on grilled naan bread ($9.95); the pulled pork panini is flavoured with roasted cumin ($13.95); and there’s even a chicken tikka pizza ($16.95) just to name a few.

Fortunately the similarities to sports bars end there — the space is quiet and well-lit and the service has a hole-in-the-wall mom-and-pop vibe.

During our recent visit there was one server at the front and a cook at the back (we were there late so we saw him come out at the end of the night) plus another lady who seemed to run back and forth between the kitchen and the dining room. The service itself was friendly and our server was very helpful in recommending some of the restaurant’s most popular dishes.

We were in the mood for something a little more Indian so we decided to start with Saffron’s beef samosas ($8.95). The three samosas were filled with ground beef scented with cumin and coriander soft morsels of potato and green peas. Instead of being triangular the samosas looked more like empanadas with thick pastry that reminded me a little bit of the pizza pockets of my youth. The samosas were drizzled with both tomato chutney and coriander chutney and served with a small side of shaved fennel salad which I really enjoyed.

For the main course our server recommended the spice scented Cornish hen ($16.95) which I thought would showcase chef/owner Rohan Anand’s French technique along with some Indian flavours. The dish was presented beautifully with large pieces of meat stacked on top of a bed of mashed potatoes accompanied by roasted vegetables and a mushroom demi-glace. The hen was moist and flavourful though more from the demi-glace than the spices themselves. I would occasionally catch a cumin seed here or there but the spice rub was too subtle for me. The mashed potatoes were rich and buttery but too salty — I couldn’t finish them. I was told that the restaurant had run out of the Lingonberry chutney that was supposed to be served with the dish which was unfortunate as it could have benefited from some sweetness and tartness to cut through the savouriness of the other ingredients.

My fiancé decided to try the butter chicken ($16.95) which we both thoroughly enjoyed — tender pieces of chicken were dressed in a creamy tomato-based sauce that had a slight pleasant sweetness. Instead of the more traditional basmati rice the butter chicken was served with rice pilaf along with some buttery wedges of garlic naan that had been lightly charred on the grill.

For dessert we tried the Darjeeling chai tiramisu ($9.95) which I had high hopes for given that chai is one of my favourite things and tiramisu is one of my fiancé’s favourites. As a tiramisu it was okay but there was virtually no chai flavour until I unexpectedly bit into a whole cardamom seed.

With the growing popularity of Asian fusion restaurants in Calgary I was really interested in what Saffron Mantra had to offer but based on the dishes I tried they are a little timid when it comes to adding Indian flavour to western dishes. Where they do shine is in their more classic Indian dishes — I will be back for the butter chicken and to try their rogan josh.