The large, high-ceilinged dining space at 4128 Magazine Street has had ax rough few years. As Baie Rouge, it struggled to fill its perhaps overly open floor plan. When Chef Dominique Macquet took it over as Saveur, having given up his former restaurant’s home to what would become Shaya, it lasted less than a year. A week after Saveur closed, the more casual Tryst opened in its place and shuttered almost as quickly as it appeared.
Now, thanks to Arvinder Vilkhu, his wife Pardeep and their children Ashwin and Pranita, the space may have finally found its true calling. Last month, the family finally opened Saffron NOLA after months of buzz about their plans to take their enormously popular, one-night-a-week Indian restaurant in Gretna—an offshoot of their catering business—across the river for full-time dinner service. The initially announced March opening was delayed as the Vilkhus renovated, transforming what had been a cavernous room into a sleek, warm interior inspired by the aesthetic of the Indian city Chandigarh.
When Saffron NOLA was ready for business, their devoted following took note, and fast.
“The soft opening was not a soft opening, it was opening hard from day one,” Arvinder said with a smile a few days after the restaurant’s August 10 grand opening. “It’s been nonstop ever since.”
Seated in one of the dining room’s plush, burgundy chairs, his eyes flitted briefly toward the kitchen, where a server inspected a steaming silver tray of curry leaf, garlic and onion-broiled P&J oysters.
The oyster bed roast represents multiple efforts at blending traditional Indian cuisine from various regions of the country with fresh, local ingredients and cooking styles. The spice-crusted nariyal gulf fish, which arrives on top of a brightly flavored green korma sauce, is another.
“Our fish [is] crusted in Northern Indian spices and tossed on a wok in the Southern spices, that is we’re honoring two cities in India,” he said, adding that they grind their own spices. “[In India] either they’re deep-frying it or they do it in the clay oven but we’re crusting with spices, then pan searing—emulating a blackened fish, like Paul Prudhomme’s way of doing it. But we don’t blacken the spices. We only spice it to stay flavorful and then we just get it to caramelized and brown—not the burned—consistency.”
Menu items like the goat masala, Khyber lamb chops and pork vindaloo, all of which appeared on the West Bank Saffron menu, are available at the Magazine Street location. Other dishes, including the eggplant Hyderabad with coconut, peanuts and tamarind, have appeared at the West Bank Saffron as specials.
My two meals at Saffron featured multiple stunners and happy surprises (not the least of which was a tuna chaat presentation in which the bright pink fish was understandably mistaken for melon cubes by a diner near me). But the engaging, knowledgeable staff and friendly vibe in the restaurant appealed too.
In fact, community seems as central as food to the Vilkhus, who began serving in-house meals out of their catering setup after they returned from evacuating after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
“Our clients who were coming back did not have any place to go to eat. So we started opening up our place on Saturday mornings for lunch,” Vilkhu recalled. He and his wife were in touch with customers to let them know they were safe.
“We told them, ‘If you are trying to get some food for your house, come over,’ and that’s when it all started. We started dining in our kitchen front of the house, which was a small retail space.” Eventually, they took over what had been the restaurant next door to them in the Gretna Boulevard strip mall.
Soon, the Vilkhus’ children, Ashwin, who created the inventive cocktail program and now serves as the restaurant’s marketing director and GM, and Pranita, who manages the finances and front-of-house, encouraged them to forge ahead with in-house dining. Having co-founded the original business with Arvinder, Ashwin’s wife Pardeep, a psychologist, now serves as Saffron’s catering director.
The concentrated family involvement appears to be paying off, too. As I sipped a balanced, fruity concoction of vodka, lime, bitters, cacao and sparkling rosé, Arvinder trailed a server as he ran three dishes to a pair of women seated at the elegant, walnut shelf–backed bar. Glancing up at Ashwin and without being seen by the customers, the chef wordlessly gestured a few requests to his son aimed at improving the diners’ experience or presentation of food. Ashwin didn’t miss a beat.
“In this industry, consistency’s so important and you can only develop it when the owners are always present on the premises,” said Arvinder, the veteran manager of the Pickwick Club.
“The planning, the staff—all that has to do with the combined effect. Food not only does the job. We want to develop an experience for our guests. The ambiance here, the happy staff serving you is part of the package.”
The killer food is a nice lagniappe.