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Saffron Street – A Place I Wanna Live

Food should be an adventure, a journey to a place of enjoyment and delight, a little peek into a faraway land. At least for me, experiencing the tastes of another culture and country are one of the most rewarding parts of my gourmand pursuits. Friday night was one of the highlights in that pedantic voyage of tasting, living and embracing food experiences as part of my education in life.

From the moment I read about Vagabond’s pop-up restaurant Saffron Street, I wanted to go. In fact, the date couldn’t get here fast enough. I’m always enthused about any new culinary offering in KC, as it’s fun to sample the handiwork of whomever created the concept. With a pop-up it’s not just the food, it’s capturing the moment – the daring menu selection, the mood of the room, the pace of the meal, the whole of a dinner that can I never experience again because in just a few days it will disappear! It’s like catching a butterfly as a child. You know there are others out there – but as you hold this one in your hands, you want to draw it close and examine each and every color, the design, its antenna. Once it is gone, you may never find that exact beauty again.

Saffron Street was just that – an experience to treasure  because it could only be had once, in this time and place with this precise food. Lucky for you, Saffron Street is here this coming weekend and it’s a scene you don’t want to miss.

On the third floor of a downtown building, you enter a world found an ocean away in the intoxicating seaside of North Africa. Now you might find a couple of cafes in KC serving Moroccan food, but you won’t be able to get a similar experience anywhere in the Midwest. You hear the music as you step off the elevator, exotic and enticing with beating drums and tapping tambourines. A beautiful wall of white linens line the walkway, soft light bouncing behind it, leading you to the entrance to this land afar.

Greeting us with a smile, KC’s foodie queen Jenny Vergara welcomed us and gave the rundown of how the place worked. She and Chef Alex Pope are the team behind Vagabond Culinary Events which has done two previous pop-ups.  She explained this was a free-flowing dinner with many options and unlimited servings. If I found something I liked, I could go back for more. And, of course, that’s exactly what I did!

We chose a table near the center of the “market”. The open, dimly lit space was set up like a Moroccan bazaar. In the middle of the room was a large covered vendor’s booth like you might find at an outdoor market. It’s ceiling was made from long white sheets of thin material with a wood shingle roof around the square structure. It’s counters were stacked with white plates, chaffing dishes and colorful silky napkins wrapped around silverware. From here, two of the four main courses were being served. Other stations, with more white material draping down like awnings, were presented as their own authentic vendors where the food was plated before your eyes. There were hand-woven rugs covering the walls and large bowls and baskets of fruit, cinnamon sticks and other spices carefully placed around the room. The warm and welcoming aura left you feeling like a special guest in a foreign place where all the magnificent dishes had been made just for you.

In the corner of the room was a bar topped with three hammered steel bowls. Each contained a Moroccan cocktail with wonderful scents and spices. We began with the orange-flower mimosa style drink that smelled as wonderful as it tasted. It was a delicate aperitif that set the stage for all the magnificent scents, sights and delicious sensations to come. The other drinks were a little heavier in flavor. One a nice Mint Tea Julep with a smokey bourbon base and the other a beautiful scarlet pomegranate concoction with spices and fresh ginger. The julep was suggested to be paired with the poultry courses and the pomegranite with the beef and lamb.

We began at the pita and condiment bar, a beautiful display meant to represent the seven traditional salads served at a Moroccan meal. This array of vibrant, fragrant and colorful chutneys and sauces could have been my entire meal! There was feta in olive oil mixed with balmy spices, thick tomato jam, cucumber yogurt, and thinly sliced carrots with mint and chilis gorgeously floating in a jar of clear liquid. I kept going back for more, especially those slightly spicy yet fresh carrots touched with mint. It was perhaps the best carrot preparation I’ve eaten. Another favorite was labeled Green Chamoula. It resembled a chimichuri sauce but thicker and darker – simply perfect atop pita. And while this surfeit of enticing herbed treasures was worth the price of admission alone,  I’m so glad I didn’t stop there.

Taking our time we sampled each of the four main courses. The chickpeas served alongside the cornish hen breast were fantastic! But the dish called Basteeya quickly became the bulk of my meal. Plated atop a simple green salad dashed with vinaigrette, this pocket of saffron braised chicken surrounded by warm, flakey phyllo was a slice of heaven. The moist, rich chicken mixture nearly melted in my mouth and came with a pleasant little crunch of slivered almonds. I had to go back for more!

It was a hard call, whether to settle in with another luscious, warm pocket of Basteeya or devour a second Harissa Beef Rib with cous cos and braised peppers. These weren’t your normal-sized ribs either. The presentation was fantastic with the dinosaur-like bone nearly filling the length of the plate. Each one had a generous chunk of dark beef clinging to the rib, very tender with just a touch of heat on the tongue. Unfortunately, my belly filled up faster than my eyes and nose had hoped.

Despite the full sensation, I kept on sampling. A sip of the unusual cocktail and a bite more of artistically spiced chicken and almonds. A little more conversation, another look around the cultured room, and taking in a deep breath with those rhythmic Moroccan tunes. It was a wonderful evening.

That’s what I loved about Saffron Street, it was a meal for all your senses, not just the taste buds. The aromatics, the music,  bright fresh fruits and vegetables, beautiful cocktails and the ambiance….it was an experience I want to have over and over again. But alas, it is the very nature of a pop-up that allows this creativity, extravagance and singularity to thrive. If only for this short period, in this one location, this meal of the moment was all mine.

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