A Whole New World
Food lovers flock to Saffron Indian Kitchen to savor the distinctive flavors, spices and aromas of Indian cuisine
by Bill Donahue

If you are among the ever-shrinking number of people who have yet to try Indian cuisine, Rahul Bhatia wants to let you in on a little secret: You will, in all likelihood, fall in love with it—especially if you experience its bold flavors for the first time at Saffron Indian Kitchen, which has two locations in Montgomery County.

“Even if you have never had Indian food before, you will come here and find something that will be familiar,” says Bhatia, chef and owner of both Saffron Indian Kitchen restaurants. “Our servers are very knowledgeable, and they will guide you through what you might like and won’t like. Once someone finds what they like, they will develop a taste for it and open them up to a whole new world.”

A native of New Delhi, India, Bhatia had been working for a restaurant group in Boston when he saw potential in the Philadelphia suburbs. This gave him the opportunity to share many of the recipes he learned from his family and then perfected while at cooking school in Kolkata, formerly known as Calcutta.

Bhatia opened the first Saffron Indian Kitchen in Bala Cynwyd in March 2009. Then, heartened by the positive reception from even the most discerning residents of the Main Line, Bhatia decided to open a second restaurant. Just six months after the introduction of the original location, Bhatia’s second Saffron Indian Kitchen opened its doors in Ambler.

“We had a nice reception from our clientele on our very first day in Bala Cynwyd,” Bhatia says. “The people who live on the Main Line tend to eat out a lot and are open to many different things, many different kinds of cuisine. They will try anything once, but it has to be good for them to come back. It’s the same with Ambler, which is an up-and-coming area, so we saw a lot of potential there.

“Our goal was to introduce Indian cuisine to people and have more and more first-timers try it,” he continues. “The idea was to have a lot of flavor in our food and not scare people away with spices. Every dish features all of the flavors that a guest might want, but we shy away from the chili part of it; people will find hotter dishes in Chinese cuisine than they will find here.”

The two locations share similarities in terms of menu and size, as both restaurants have casual yet intimate dining rooms with warm, contemporary décor. (“We wanted to get away from the elephants and the other obvious symbols of India that people might see in the décor of other Indian restaurants,” Bhatia says, “so we created a casual and nicely colored atmosphere.”) The Bala Cynwyd has a weekend brunch buffet, enabling guests to enjoy a wide range of vegetarian and nonvegetarian entrées, as well as all-you-can-eat dosas, which are crispy pancakes made of rice batter.

Although the décor is unique, it’s the cuisine that truly makes Saffron stand apart. Indian cuisine is well known for being friendly to those who prefer not to eat meat, so it’s only logical that vegetarian delicacies abound here. Popular vegetarian options include saag paneer, which comprises homemade cheese tossed with spinach, masala and a hint of garlic, and chana Punjabi, a flavorful dish of chickpeas cooked with onions, herbs and tomatoes. Indian breads, such as multiple kinds of naan, baked in each restaurant’s tandoor oven are a popular part of any meal.

Of course, many of Saffron’s signature dishes include chicken, lamb and seafood. For example, the chicken tikka masala—chicken tenders cooked in a tandoor oven, basted in a tangy and delicately spiced paprika sauce—is Saffron’s bestselling dish by far. Regardless of the dish, Bhatia works directly with each location’s kitchen staff to ensure quality and freshness. He designed the menu himself, after all, based on recipes he has nurtured over the years.

A relative few Indian dishes have earned a reputation for their mouth-searing heat, though some people have the misperception that all Indian cuisine is rife with overpowering curries and fiery spices. Saffron aims to make the dining experience approachable and enjoyable for all guests, so the spiciness level of each dish can be adjusted to suit one’s preference.

“It’s easy to mess up Indian cuisine, so it’s very important that your first experience is in the right place,” he says. “Chicken tikka masala is an example of a dish that has been adapted to suit the American palate. We’re making it as balanced as possible without losing or compromising on any of the flavor. It’s not very spicy, even on the mild side, so that even kids can have it. We also offer a lot of kebabs for people who don’t like sauce. Those are a few of the things we suggest, and from there they can experiment.”

Still Evolving
Bhatia is a veteran of the restaurant business, having spent more than a decade developing his talents in the kitchens of other skilled chefs. In addition, his culinary education includes a master’s degree in restaurant and hotel administration from Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island. These experiences, he believes, helped him cultivate his vision for Saffron, which has continued to evolve.

“We change our menu every month, with specials and different dishes that you will not find in any other restaurants,” he says. “We’d have five or six different dishes on special every month; some are traditional Indian dishes, and some are fusion dishes with Chinese and other kinds of cuisine. We also try to introduce one or two totally new items every month, and people have really come to look forward to them. An example is the tandoori salmon, which we had last night for a special. During the summer months, we will do grill specials, like lamb or seafood.”  

Although Saffron’s dine-in traffic remains vibrant, both locations continue to experience strong growth in other areas of its business—namely, takeout and catering.  

“We can cater a party for 20 to 200,” Bhatia says. “Our catering menu is vast, with a lot of dishes from South India. It’s an extensive menu, where people can pick from our 20 appetizers as part of a package that is made to order. People love to try something new at parties, so we’re expecting to do a lot of catering this holiday season, and then continue on to graduation and wedding season.”

Whether patrons choose to dine in or enjoy the charms of Indian cuisine off site, Saffron Indian Kitchen delivers an experience unlike any other. Give Bhatia a chance to prove it—just one chance, he promises—and he’s confident you will be back for more.

Saffron Indian Kitchen

145 Montgomery Ave.
Bala Cynwyd, PA 19004

60 E. Butler Ave.
Ambler, PA 19002

Photograph by Rob Hall