Food review: Cafe Saffron, Shrewsbury
Andy Richardson goes for a midweek supper at Cafe Saffron in Shrewsbury.
The walls are lined with trophies. A cabinet behind the bar groans under the weight of silverware and porcelain, rather like the cabinet might at Manchester United or Manchester City. There’s a trophy for being the best guy who makes a curry, the best Asian chef, the best man ever to grow a beard. Okay, there isn’t a beard one. But you get the drift.
And beside those are even more awards and newspaper cuttings – some of which, it should be said, originate from this newspaper and this author. They talk of brilliant things, of winning trophies, dazzling judges and impressing showbiz friends.
And yet the sparkle was lacking at Café Saffron when I called in for a midweek supper. Too slow, mediocre food and lacking in pizzazz, one of Shrewsbury’s best-loved curry houses did the things it was supposed to but without the normal flair or dynamism. What ought to have been a quick and enjoyable supper was a slow and ponderous evening with insufficient joy. And while the food was fine and the service was okay, I left feeling underwhelmed.
In some ways, I guess, the restaurant is a victim of its own success. Tuesdays aren’t supposed to be busy; they’re supposed to be the graveyard shift, when chefs end up streaming Netflix on their mobile phones or Snapchatting the waitress. Ghost Mode, or so I’m told.
And yet the guys in the kitchen were rushed off their feet on a warm spring evening as two of Café Saffron’s three dining areas were full. A private dining area, on the first floor, was bursting with happy guests.
“Do you know where the toilets are, mate?” said one, slightly the worse for wear as I climbed the stairs in a fine-knit jersey that bears little resemblance to the Café Saffron outfit. I couldn’t help him. He didn’t seem bothered. The lagers had already kicked in.
And on the top floor, one half of the restaurant was filled with tables of two or four: couples who’d seen a film, mates out for a catch-up, families enjoying an early supper and boys and girls on date nights. Ah, ain’t that cute.
I sat on my lonesome, around the corner, and perhaps my invisibility was part of the reason for the slow service. Or, more likely, the kitchen was too busy with the private dining room to smash out a curry for one. Whatever the reason, 50 minutes’ waiting time is a bad look when you’re after something cheap and cheerful before returning home.
The restaurant is bright and welcoming. Light streams through large windows and there are plenty of colourful artworks, super-bright lights and rows and rows of tables to welcome bumper crowds at weekends.
It took a while for the waiters to take my drinks order and there was some confusion about whether I was eating with the Invisible Man.
“What would your friend like?” asked the waiter, pointing to an empty chair.
I assumed he was joking. He earned full marks for surreal humour.
“Yes, your friend.” He pointed to the empty chair and – I think – imagined I was either waiting for someone or was with A. N. Other who’d popped to the loo, or something . . .
The confusion cleared. I think. And the evening began.
But while I’d hoped we’d move through the gears and cruise along satisfyingly in fifth, we didn’t really get out of third. A food waiter was slow to take my order. Then even slower to deliver the starter. And I’ve already mentioned the 50-minute wait for the main. In fairness, the guy in charge popped out after half an hour to apologise and briefly explain that the big table downstairs was sucking the life out of the kitchen. So I’ll stop banging on about the slow service and turn to the food.
The starter, a chicken pathia puri, was delicious. A small bread enveloped tiny pieces of sweet-sour-hot chicken that had a beautiful tang. There was a wan salad beside it with plenty of needless sauces. They were left, unloved and unwanted – all of the action was with the pathia.
The main arrived in a blaze of glory, though it was anything but special. Claypot chicken was lauded as being one of the venue’s award-winning dishes, though it was a workaday curry that didn’t trip the light fantastic. If you’re going to hype a dish and tell the world how good it is, you have to deliver something special. And on this occasion, my expectations were raised to expect a dish that simply didn’t match up. Oh, and the chicken was over-cooked. The rice was interesting, full of mint and aromatic fragrance. But it wasn’t an evening that will live long in the memory. Though the trophy cabinet suggested Man Utd beating Bayern Munich in the final of the Champions League, I got Man Utd’s Youth Team playing Barnsley in the Central League, if there is such a thing, on a rainy Tuesday night with three men and a dog. If you follow my metaphor.
Shrewsbury is over-run with curry houses. There’s one that stands out, for my money, and a group that are much of a muchness. Café Saffron provides good service – usually – with a quick team and an experienced gaffer. The restaurant certainly does a better job than most of the others in town, but that’s not to say it provided much in the way of excitement or razzle dazzle on my latest trip.
The posters and signed photographs from John Bishop suggest a gourmet experience that simply didn’t live up to expectation. And so, reluctantly, it gets a mark that says ‘stuck in the middle with you’. Three out of five is treading water; it’s a score that says there’s room to up its game. And – if past successes are anything to go by – it almost certainly will.