Here's the skinny: Saffron calls itself a wine bar with tapas, although the definition of tapas (the word originally came from the tiny plates used to "tapar" a wine or sherry glass so, not to put too fine a point on it, the flies wouldn't fall in) has been stretched far beyond the simple olives, almonds, sausages, and seafood once characteristic of the term. The wine list is lengthy, with several offerings by the glass, even more by the half-bottle (usually decanted from a full bottle into a carafe), and an amazing array of full-size bottles, many of which you will see nowhere else. You put the two together. C'mon now, this is fun.
So much fun, in fact, that it's easy to forget that though portions are small, the tally can quickly become large in the heat of pairings pursuit. A couple of hours or more after two foodie friends and I arrived, the bill had already topped $150, tip included. And we could have kept going. So here's some avuncular advice: Set a slow pace, and don't get greedy. Or take out a loan and throw caution to the wind. Up to you.
We began slowly enough, or so it seemed at the time, with an order of roasted garlic and tomato preserves, a paté "flight" (a term usually reserved for wines), and two different wines: One smoky and full with mucho vanilla, the other bright and berry-like with an appealing lightness, you guess which: a 2000 Protócolo from Spain and Fess Parker's 2000 Mackie's Blend Syrah — both $5 a glass. The garlic was, as anticipated, a large head sliced in half and roasted for mellowness, but the tomato preserves could have used a touch of the abuela
; they lacked texture and were mostly sweet — though the combination wasn't unappealing. Duck with pistachio and orange zest, rabbit with raisin and brandy, and chicken with sun-dried tomato formed the flight, along with such garnishes as dried fig and hazelnuts. All were good, although the chicken was the least interesting, and the figs and nuts actually did the most to enhance the wines.
By this time, the wines had evolved into an impressively priced Faustino Gran Reserva '94 Rioja ($12.50 per glass), both lively and profound, if that doesn't sound too pretentious; a beautifully balanced 1997 Viña Alberdi Reserva ($10) and a much more modest white, the Verdejo Palacio de Menade 2001 from Rueda — the wine most improved by the hazelnut helper. A lamb cassoulet arrived about this time. No, it wasn't really a dense and thick cassoulet in the classic sense, despite its requisite white beans and a very good sausage, but the flavors were extremely good—and they paired nicely with the quite extraordinary pinot grigio that had also just appeared on the scene.
Pinot grigio is frequently not much more than neutral. Refreshing perhaps, but hardly worthy of serious contemplation. Not so the Swanson 2000 from Napa Valley. Nuanced with honeysuckle and fig components, it wasn't an immediate hit, but as it warmed so did we. Warming was not necessarily a plus with the tortilla española
. Heating may have enhanced the flavors of the onion, potato, and Spanish jamon serrano
, but it didn't help the texture. At least this is my story as learned at tapas bars in Spain (where this quasi-quiche is served room temperature), and I'm sticking to it. Equally Spanish (and also hot) were the tender calamares
(squid) with smoky red peppers, and onion, good both with and without a squeeze of lemon and especially successful with the pinot grigio. (The menu suggests trying a viura, an under-appreciated Spanish white, so why not?)
Sweet Afterthoughts is the extensive menu's term for desserts, and from the list both a Port cake and an inventive "chocolates by the ounce" option stood out. You have a choice of El Rey from Venezuela, ScharffenBerger from California, and France's Valrohna — a full chocolate flight, in other words. Still feeling savory, we opted instead to end with a cheese plate featuring a classic ewe's milk manchego
and the intense but extremely rewarding cabrales
, a Spanish blue cheese made from a varying mixture of goat, cow, and sheep's milks. In traditional style, the plate was presented with toasted almonds slivers of membrillo
, or quince paste, and slices of jamon serrano
. What to drink with this? What not: Both reds and whites can work — even the absolutely lovely (really no other word for it) split of Dampierre Cuvée des Ambassadeurs, NV Brut I shared on my first foray. We chose sherry.
Though all of the plates listed above are relatively small, a selection of several more than makes a meal. Nevertheless, owner Josh Duncan has instituted a full-size entrée-a-day regimen he expects to publish about a month out in order to allow customers to plan a visit around, say, a pork loin stuffed with goat cheese and red peppers. On such occasions, you may want to order an impressive wine by the bottle; this is when you get the big, really impressive wine glasses. And at least this way, you know up front what the evening is going to cost, sometimes a useful piece of information. Even when you're feeling the frisson
6450 N. New Braunfels
Hours: Mon.-Thurs., 11am-3pm & 5-10pm; Fri., 11am-3pm & 5pm-12am; Sat., 11am-12am
Price range: Tapas $4-$14
Major credit cards
Entrance handicapped accessible, bathrooms are not.