Great Food, Stale Atmosphere At Yupscale Mount Vernon Locale
This location is closed
Last year’s sudden bust-up of Locust Point’s Soigné perplexed Baltimore’s hard-core foodies, who were saddened to see its highly touted chef, Edward Kim, leave for what they perceived as the browner pastures of Merkado, an upstart Asian-Latino restaurant in Washington. Kim has very recently returned to Baltimore, to take over the kitchen at Saffron (802 N. Charles St.,  528-1616), the Mount Vernon restaurant still owned by Tony Chemmanoor.
I never did make it to Soigné, where Kim’s Asian fusion, and particularly his omakase, or blind tasting menus, both challenged and delighted serious diners by most reports. Saffron I visited once and was less excited than baffled by its Indian fusion menu. Mostly I resisted the stiff room and the lopsided service—either invisible or hovering, and always at the wrong time. Truthfully, I resisted partly because Saffron had supplanted the irreplaceable Ruby Lounge, which specialized in yet another kind of fusion, that of food and mood.
Saffron’s “modern American” menu is now 100 percent Edward Kim’s—nothing remains from Saffron’s former menu, except a list of exotic drinks that slows bar service to a snail’s pace. Much of the elaborate décor remains—the silky wallpaper with galloping antelopes, the persimmon-painted walls. These rooms, especially the upper square-shaped room where we were seated, still feel unhappy. Possibly it’s just tension, a feeling that will pass when Kim’s old Soigné regulars start showing up and a new waitstaff gains its footing. But running underneath is a current of joylessness, and bringing to Saffron some mirth, excitement, and a reason for spending long hours enjoying Kim’s food—not to mention tidy sums of cash—is going to be a tricky but necessary undertaking. Tweaking the sound system would be a good start. Removing the seating chart—sheets of paper masking-taped to surfaces—from patrons’ view is another.
Hopefully such changes will come, because the menu tantalizes and the food looks great and tastes even better. Kim’s technique is sterling, and his introductory Saffron menu is full of bright ideas and food that real people like to eat. It lacks, perhaps, the kind of envelope-pushing exotic ingredients and touches that set off bells for the most aggressive diner. Instead there’s an enthusiasm for administering elegant and savory touches to basic stock—rack of lamb, halibut, steak, salmon.
Halibut ($20) gets seared to a beautiful crispy-skinned finish, with its meat gorgeously sweet and pillowy. It is dressed up with a spring-fresh sweet-pea cream sauce. It’s a little daring, because in less sure hands a sweet-pea cream sauce could end up looking like baby food, but here it’s lovely. Fold in a delectably creamy spring pea-and-corn risotto and sweet garlicky spinach, and it’s a spectacular yet humble entrée.
A rack of lamb ($28) pleases by being, first of all, well purveyed, meaty, and with just enough fat for flavor. It’s roasted to a caramel-like crusty finish, accompanied by a lovely sauce of balsamic butter and fig syrup. A bracingly good spiced tomato broth worked magic with a finely assembled seafood cioppino ($24) featuring specimen jumbo shrimp, scallops, mussels, oysters, chorizo, and chicken, all topped off by a petite crab cake full of natural flavor, and underpinned by a creamy lobster mash.
A grilled New York strip au poivre ($24) arrives in tender ruby-tinged slices, atop a goat-cheese gratin and artichoke fricassee. Again, familiar ingredients are treated thoughtfully and given purpose. An attempt at a chimichurri sauce felt just slightly cautious here, perhaps a wise reserve of something potentially overwhelming.
The must-have appetizer—and don’t share—is Kim’s mélange of seared foie gras, scallops, and duck confit ($14) with caramelized mango and rum-butter reduction, an arousing meltdown of rich flavors and sensuous textures. I thought a blood orange sorbet did no favors for an enterprising ceviche ($8) of Gulf shrimp, scallop, and halibut—I couldn’t locate the seafood’s natural flavors. Soups are superb: a corn-and-garlic bisque ($6) with the perfect amount of blue cheese, a luscious lobster bisque ($7) with shrimp-and-corn stuffed ravioli.
With all that great food, I can’t say that we had a great evening. I’ll be eagerly waiting to see whether Saffron can locate its own soul and assemble all of the other elements that make dining out interesting, rewarding, and, well, fun.