Sometimes life takes you in a direction you never thought possible, and that is exactly what happened to Executive Chef Diwesh Bhattarai, who recently realized a long-time dream—Saffron Urban Indian Kitchen—when it recently opened in the Aksarben Village neighborhood.
Bhattarai arrived in the United States from Butwal, Nepal in 2007 as an engineering student, working toward a Computer Science degree at Bellevue University. To fund living expenses, he took a job as a dishwasher in the kitchen of a local Indian restaurant but soon found himself fascinated by the inner workings of a professional kitchen. He became more and more comfortable in the space, and on one fortuitous occasion a line cook was absent so the chef asked Bhattarai to step in. After the shift, the head chef, recognizing a natural affinity for the craft, encouraged the fledgling line cook to consider attending culinary school.
Under the tutelage of instructors like Chef Brian O’Malley at Metropolitan Community College Institute for the Culinary Arts, the budding chef began learning classical French techniques and the terminology that described them. He already possessed the skill and palate to cook Indian food, but culinary school enabled him to bring new techniques to familiar flavors. Immediately after completing a culinary arts degree in 2015, he returned to complete the hospitality program, wanting to further his front of house knowledge.
The tendency toward hospitality has always been a part of his life, “In Nepal, when a guest is in your home, they are the first priority, ‘anything you want, right there for you’ that is how we want guests to feel when they dine with us – so very welcome.” To this day he makes time to observe the dining room by quietly sitting in different corners before starting pre-shift meetings with his staff.
For several years after completing culinary school, Bhattarai honed his craft by working in various kitchens across the city. After meeting local businessman Sagar Gurung at a golf outing, the pair bonded over an affinity for food and ambition to open restaurants. Saffron is the realization of years of conversations—they dreamed of a spot serving cuisine reminiscent of Indian flavors and traditions with a completely reinvented ambiance.
The space Saffron Urban Indian Kitchen occupies is lush with green plants, jewel tones, and an abundance of natural light that glows dreamily around the high walls and ceilings. The team worked with fellow Aksarben business Kinghorn Gardens on the plant choices, as well as a small herb garden that provides fresh mint and other herbs for the bar and kitchen.
The adjacent whisky room is designed to make sippers feel as though they are royalty. According to Bhattarai, the beverage of choice for Maha-ra-jas was often whisky, so the space is adorned in luxurious fabrics and lined with gold-framed pictures—remakes of versions that hung in actual royal palaces. A whisky sommelier is on staff for pairings, recommendations, and sampling events.
Growing up in Nepal just over the southern Indian border gave Bhattarai an affinity for certain aromas and flavors. In addition to his mom’s cooking, the executive chef remembers fondly other childhood favorites snagged from the ubiquitous moving street stalls. Snacks such as samosas and panipuri, a hollow fried bread with a light puffy crust, filled with potatoes, peas, and tangy tamarind chutney evoke warm memories. These flavors and aromas found their way to the appetizer menu at Saffron.
The team prides itself on crafting delicious food and providing stellar service. Acknowledgement and honesty are critical tenets imparted to staff. Bhattarai shared, “No matter how busy we are, it’s important to take a moment to make eye contact and let a new guest know we’ll be right with them.”
Bhattarai and Sous Chef Toya have worked together in various Indian eating establishments for years, and at Saffron they are putting a fresh spin on traditional southern Indian cuisine by developing their own recipes and spice blends, testing and tasting until they find the best versions of their vision.
Staple traditional dishes such as tikka masala, korma, and vindaloo found early spots on the menu, but look for inventive twists and innovative plating that take the experience to a new level. The saffron lamp chops are a delight to behold, and rib eye vindaloo melds Midwestern steak with Indian flavors in a lovely manner.
Focusing on smaller batches allows the team to focus on product quality and ways to retain flavor. “Once the farmer’s market starts up again, we hope to curate dishes from the market and local producers,” shared the executive chef.
Bhattarai is grateful for his staff and for the lessons he’s learned from mentors. A quote that adorns the Saffron Urban Indian Kitchen page sums it well, “Good food. And good folks to enjoy that food with. That’s all I need in my life.”