In the UAE there is no shortage of restaurants serving Indian food; in fact, you can eat dals, biryanis, naan and various chaats galore. However, these establishments do tend to fall into two camps: there are the more authentic, street-style cafes where, for a few dirhams, you can munch hot samosas on the hoof or pick up rounds of golden, buttery crisp paratha. Alternatively, at the other end of the price scale, you can go all out and sample what has become known as high-end modern Indian cooking in elegant environs, at places such as Vineet Bhatia's Indego by Vineet or Ushna at Souq Qaryat Al Beri in Abu Dhabi.
It is precisely this discrepancy between the two experiences that Zafran has capitalised on so well and indeed managed to straddle the middle ground: the first branch of the restaurant, which is billed as serving "contemporary Indian cuisine", opened in Mirdif City Centre in 2010 and the second branch came to Dubai Marina Mall at the tail end of last year. The mall locations mean that prices are far lower than in a hotel-based restaurant, yet the food is still served with a refined twist and certainly bears the hallmarks of the Michelin-starred chef and Zafran consultant Atul Kochhar, which is, of course, no bad thing.
I enjoyed my meal at Zafran in Mirdif, but had a better overall experience at the second incarnation in the marina last week. The spacious outdoor terrace is a positive addition and, lit up at night, the atmosphere is intimate, rather than sterile or shopping centre-esque.
There's plenty of choice on the menu, which ranges from the traditional - for example murgh badami shorba or aloo tikii - to the more modern and adventurous, such as Zafran's take on British fish and chips (mustard-marinated fish with curry leaf potatoes).
We decided to share all our dishes, which is something that I would advise, as one of my few criticisms of the food would be that a number of the items we ordered were really quite salty, which can take its toll.
A bowl of malai kofta arrived first and set the tone for the meal; it is obvious that aesthetics are taken into consideration at Zafran, yet the portions are generous nonetheless. The soft, chewy, golden croquettes made from minced vegetables and specked with diced paneer were given texture and a hint of sweetness thanks to a scattering of chopped nuts and raisins respectively. They bobbed about in a silky, saffron-yellow sauce that was so rich and velvety it cannot possibly have been healthy. It was, however, very tasty.
A kebab platter featured a generous serving of seekh (minced lamb) kebabs; the cylinders of meat were moist and juicy and had been rolled in plenty of chopped chillies and herbs, which added not just colour but a thwack of heat and flavour. We asked for extra pieces of what turned out to be surprisingly tender chicken tikka instead of the grilled hammour - it's a real shame to see the endangered local fish on the menu - and the staff happily obliged. In the end, though, we wished we'd been more savvy and swapped the fish for another king prawn instead, as the single, large crustacean with its sweet white meat and curry leaf-dusted shell was the star of this particular show.
Despite being served without the tamarind chutney listed on the menu, a plate of changezi champen (marinated lamb cutlets) was very good indeed. The lamb chops were perfectly cooked - charred on the outside, plump and juicy-pink in the centre, with a smoky, salty, fatty flavour that had us nibbling away at the bones long after they had been stripped of their meat.
A side order of russet coloured dal bakhari was nice, if not exceptional; the stewed black lentils and tomatoes produced a soft, soothing, mildly spiced mouthful. A portion of naan bread, meanwhile, was not as pillowy and light as expected - being rather more dense and chewy - but was useful for mopping up the last of the dal.
I like Zafran very much; the restaurant is, I believe, not just staying true to its word in serving affordable Indian food with panache, but is doing so very well indeed.
A meal for two at Zafran, Dubai Marina Mall costs Dh227, not including service. For reservations call 04 399 7357. Reviewed meals are paid for by The National and all reviews are conducted incognito