I’m sure we have all been in this situation at one point or another in our lives: you are two food critics coming back from a day-trip to the comatose half village half old folks home Santarém* and are ravenous for some good, spicy food. Then you remember that you’re in Lisbon. Upon googling “restaurante indiano lisboa”, you stumble upon a restaurant named “Zafraan” and try your luck. Once inside, the very personal, warm welcome by the owner and the smells of cumin and curry emanating from the kitchen start to look like smoke signals for an amazing restaurant.
The name of the restaurant itself is obviously a reference to “saffron”, the flame red coloured stems of the crocus flower, delicately picked and one of the most expensive ingredients on the planet, turning whatever dish it is used in bright yellow. As the menu introduction of “Zafraan” so eloquently explains: saffron is the symbol for a meeting point of different culinary cultures which all to some extent or other use saffron in their cooking: Indian, Arab, African and Portuguese (although not as frequently used in Portugal as in Spain).
This concept also comes back in the menu: most of the dishes are Indian but all of the meat is halal (the owner comes from India and is Muslim). There is also a notable presence of Africa in the menu, namely in the prawn dish “Ponta d’Ouro” which originates from Mozambique as do the chili’s in the scorching hot red dip you get in the beginning with your obligatory papadum. Unlike so many other regular Indian restaurants, the dips have distinct flavours. A small but really nice touch is that the waiters will keep on topping up your dips until the end of the meal.
The menu also goes beyond your regular stock cube-riddled Indian instant curry restaurant, which Lisbon is interspersed with: yes, you can order naan bread, pakora, curries and all of the other usual suspects, but they also have kalf Sheek Kebab on offer (traditionally made with lamb) which is cooked in their tandoori oven. They taste deliciously moreish, a beautifully dark caramelized crust on the outside gives way to deliciously spicy, melt in your mouth meat inside. Some fresh coriander and a slice of lemon on top is all you need. They do leave well enough alone here.
Then: naan-bread, deliciously wrinkled, smoky charcoaly tasting naan bread, which accompanied a smooth, beautifully textured curried aubergine for Nora and a vegetarian Thaali, a selection of four vegetarian dishes for me. The absolute highlight of the whole meal for us was the aubergine curry: unctuous, creamy, full of flavour of cumin, garlic and ginger. The aubergine curry was also one of the four that accompanied my fluffy, beautifully yellow rice. There was also an intense curry of peas and potatoes, a deep, rich tomato stew with okra (another Mozambican influence, I reckon) and a mild curry sauce. Delicious as it all was, we weren’t too sure if all of the four rather small portions together with the rice and the bread justified the 13,50 price.
For desert, we asked our lovely, courteous waiter to recommend us something and we got a fresh, zingy ginger ice cream, a sweet, dark carrot cake-like substance and a Mozambican inspired manioc puree with cinnamon on top. The carrot I wasn’t totally convinced of at first, but worked beautifully together with the ice cream and the manioc puree was nothing less than a revelation: it tasted very much like a Portuguese “arroz doce” (rice pudding), only better in balance with a more interesting, less awkward texture than the expected overcooked rice.
“Zaafran” gets many things exactly right, but they could still work more on finessing, especially the décor. It’s lovely that you can sit outside in summer, but the non-descriptive black chairs and rather bland black-yellow painted pillars don’t give you that fully immersive experience that completely does justice to the food. Bonus point however to the clever design of the room, which is more or less divided in several smaller compartments so that even with a full restaurant, it doesn’t seem loud. Foodwise, there’s really not a lot we would change, except for the rather moderate (or non-existent) level of spiciness: it could have been much hotter. This was however due to a communication error between us and the waiter we suspect: if you order your meal, you can choose which level of spiciness you want, if you don’t say anything, they’ll make it milder than mild, even for Portugal. I guess that leaves us no other option but going back to try it again.
As it stands, “Zaafran” offers some of the best Indian-styled food of Lisbon. It is confident about what it does and after such a satisfying meal basically begs you to go back there again and try the other dishes, which we’re quite sure will be just as good as what we were served that evening. Yes, it’s a bit more expensive than a regular Indian restaurant, but it’s all worth it. After having tasted the fresh ingredients, having felt the passion of the waiters and the owner for the restaurant, you just know: you cannot go wrong.
* If you disagree, please contact us and we’ll organize a day trip. Make sure you know a good restaurant though; you might not come back in one piece otherwise.
(Nout Van Den Neste)
Opening hours: Mon-Sat: 12h30 –15h00, 19h30-22h30, closed on Sundays
Address: Largo Dona Estefânia 7, Lisboa
Phone Number: 21 355 8894