Detroit’s east side goes Moroccan with Saffron De Twah

Lamb tagine.
Lamb tagine. Tom Perkins

Saffron De Twah

636 Gratiot Ave., Detroit
Handicap Accessible
" 11 a.m. to 5 p.m Mon.-Wed., Fri. Closed Sat, Sun, and Thu.

Saffron De Twah is in many ways a breath of fresh air. At a point in time when the name of the game in and around downtown Detroit is rehashing "Mediterranean" cuisine, elevating bar food, or opening a new pizzeria, Saffron De Twah offers something new — a modern take on Moroccan-inspired cuisine.

Until the restaurant opened this spring, Detroit was a tagine-less town. Owner-chef Omar Anani scanned the dining landscape and didn't think to himself "must do new American cuisine," as chefs seem programmed to do these days. Nope. He looked around and thought, "I can add something original."

Good thinking. Saffron De Twah presents a menu of bright and busy-but-balanced Moroccan dishes fused with flavors and techniques from around the globe.

There were very few bites I didn't thoroughly enjoy, but among the best came from the tomato goat cheese dip with saffron tomato sauce, whipped chevre, and pita chips — ;fans of chakchouka will recognize the plate. The acidic punch of the saffron tomato sauce perfectly balanced with the base of cooling, creamy chevre. Saffron De Twah makes its own crunchy pita chips in house for dipping.

The lamb tagine bangs with super tender lamb cooked in a tagine — which Anani pretty accurately describes as "an old school Moroccan pressure cooker" — and cumin, cardamom, onion, jalapeño, garlic, cinnamon, and saffron. That's mixed in with a jumble of couscous, carrot, zucchini, red bell pepper, tomato, toasted almond, scallion, cucumber, onion, mint, and charmoula, an herb-packed Moroccan version of chimichurri. The package is hit with tzatziki, which is made with mint instead of dill. Again — busy and bright.

The chicken shawarma bowl is similar — flavors bounce around like a pinball, the cooling elements balance the bird that's marinated in orange juice, as oranges are Morocco's biggest export. This is not the Lebanese shawarma that you're used to, and that's a good thing.

click to enlarge Moroccan Burger. - Tom Perkins
Tom Perkins
Moroccan Burger.

It should be noted Saffron De Twah is in some ways still a work in progress. Food is served in recycled paper bowls, though Anani says he's going to start using plates in the tasteful dining room. The building on Gratiot is just a little outside downtown's orbit, and it's easy to miss Saffron De Twah if you're headed up Gratiot as the signage and a giant, colorful mural on an adjacent wall are still in the works. The building is very nondescript, and it's probably best to keep an eye out for the three food trucks parked in front — Anani is the guy behind the Twisted Mitten truck.

Several menu items posted online aren't available, and Saffron was out of a couple dishes I tried to order. But a new menu with many of the same plates and several new additions is rolling out this week. Among the additions that Anani steered me toward is the lively Morocco hot chicken sandwich, which is excellent. It's brined in coriander buttermilk, Berbere hot sauce, jalapeño, garlic, and ginger, then Southern-fried and bunned with caramelized honey butter, harissa carrot slaw and harissa aioli.

The lamb ribs are run through the smoker and a little sweet from pomegranate and "all the Moroccan flavors" — a friend loved them, though I was less enthusiastic. I did, however, enjoy the Moroccan fish and chips with sticks of Vietnamese catfish that are heavily battered. Normally I don't like thick crag, but this managed to stay moist and flavorful, and is served with the super tasty chermoula. It arrives aside a small mound of awesome harissa slaw and harissa potatoes.

Saffron doesn't serve booze, but check out the intense mint tea. The hours are a little odd at the moment —& 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., and closed on Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday, but Anani says dinner hours and brunch are on the way.

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