Allen Pierleoni

First Impressions: A tale of two restaurants that became one in Folsom

Grilled lamb chops, served with basmati rice, are menu stars at Saffron Grill in Folsom.
Grilled lamb chops, served with basmati rice, are menu stars at Saffron Grill in Folsom. apierleoni@sacbee.com

First Impressions visits dining spots in the region that are new or have undergone recent transitions. Have a candidate for First Impressions? Email us at taste@sacbee.com.

Restaurants close more often than most other businesses, sometimes so suddenly there are still figurative french fries left on the plate when the owners lock the door. Conventional wisdom based on studies over the years says that 60 percent go under within their first year in business, and 80 percent of the survivors close within three to five years.

The scenario we came across recently is a twist on that.

Early in 2013, we reviewed the Iranian (a.k.a. Persian) grocery store-restaurant Tak Food Market in Carmichael, owned by spouses Majid and Forouzan Foroutan. Majid cooked lamb chops and beef, lamb, chicken and salmon kebabs on a charcoal grill in back of the store, giving the marinated meats a “backyard BBQ” flavor. The potato-chicken salad and shallot-flecked yogurt were delicious.

Later that year we discovered another Iranian cultural island, Saffron Grill in Folsom, owned by partners Navid Shahvali and husband-wife Akbar Rouholiman and Taraneh Nikoumanesh. Garlic mint chicken (with saffron, of course) was the star of the show.

Then the Tak Food Market’s lease expired, the rent rose and the Foroutans closed shop. Coincidentally, Rouholiman and Nikoumanesh left Saffron, leaving Shahvali looking for new partners. He found them in the Foroutans. Saffron Grill’s old menu was scrapped in favor of Tak’s shorter menu, and now the dust has settled.

Menu: Brief and to the point, with nine appetizers (salads, hummus, eggplant, dolmas), three sandwiches, five kebabs (including tofu) and lamb three ways: ground into kebabs, cut into chunks as kebabs, and grilled as chops.

Price point: Given the quality and portions, Saffron Grill is quite reasonable. Appetizers are $5 to $8, sandwiches $7, kebabs $8 to $16 (for salmon, Thursdays only) and lamb is $11 to $22.

Ambiance: Comfy enough, with some art on the walls and music in the background.

Drinks: Beer, wine and sodas, but more interesting are the hand-crafted specialties such as yogurt drinks, orange-blossom water and saffron, shredded cucumber with mint syrup, “seed water” of chia seeds and mint syrup in ice-cold water and, occasionally, fresh pomegranate juice.

Service: Fast, courteous and engaging. The owners take obvious pride in the dishes they make, and love to talk about them – and the history of Persian/Iranian cuisine.

First impressions: Part of the pleasure of dining at ethnic restaurants is the exploration factor, which in this case rewarded us in exotic territory.

Lentil soup had plenty of fire, which we tempered with scoops of cold, fresh hummus carried on pita bread. Though the olivieh salad is simple in construct – chicken, potato, pickled Persian cucumber, mayonnaise, lime juice, salt and pepper – it showed delightful creamy-crunchy texture and layers of flavors.

The citrusy marinated lamb chops were cooked to medium and matched well with expertly prepared white and saffroned basmati rice. As the lamb and the kebabs are cooked on an indoors gas grill, what’s lost is the smoke flavor from Majid Foroutan’s charcoal-fueled Weber kettle. We miss it, but we can live without it. Each meal comes with salad and grilled tomatoes.

For a finishing treat, don’t pass up the low-sugar ice cream blended with saffron, rosewater and frozen whipped cream.

Try it if: You wish to expand your dining horizons or you already like the cuisine.

Forget it if: You think a falafel sandwich is frightfully daring.

Allen Pierleoni: 916-321-1128, @apierleonisacbe

SAFFRON GRILL

Where: 1300 E. Bidwell St., Folsom

Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, noon-8 p.m. Sundays-Mondays

Information: 916-984-6800; a website and a Facebook account are in the works

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