The fixed menu is far less obsequious in the good old U.S.A. We Americans, it seems, need to be in control of our options . . . such as with your average buffet, where gastronomical sins are committed quite capriciously. No, in America fixed menu restaurants are generally found in major metropolises, bed and breakfasts, and quirky New-American joints you find near wineries in Napa. Now there’s one in our neighborhood, at Saffron located in the Riverside Art Museum.
I was vaguely aware of Saffron before I finally got around to visiting—it was the place I’d see during my daughter’s art classes, giving off the vibe of a rather classy spot to have lunch. Come at night, though, and you’re suddenly in one of the most romantic dining areas in the Inland Empire, especially if the place scarcely attended as it was the night we stopped in. The view is lovely. You look up at exquisite terraces, catching a glimpse of the top floor where a painting or two can be spotted. It’s evident right away: Eating at Saffron is akin to dining in a surreal and gorgeous terrarium. Saffron is supremely intimate dining.
It’s worth noting that, depending on the night you visit, there’s a good chance the art museum itself might be in use for various functions. On the night we went there was a wedding reception, an event we found amusing but one which other diners may not have enjoyed as much. Calling ahead both for reservations and inquires about events might not be a terrible idea.
A bit of noise couldn’t alter a pleasant dining experience, though. And one of the reasons for that is the service at Saffron is excellent—attentive yet not suffocating. We must have been apologized to ten times for the revelers running thru the museum. This was unnecessary—I’m partial to rampant acts of inebriation. The server also guided us through our wine choices, and explained the setup of the fixed menu very well.
Which works something like this: The meal costs $30, which in the end isn’t bad for an occasionally delicious and largely satisfactory meal. Our particular meal started off with soup, and when it was clear that it was taking a while our waitress offered us an amuse-bouche of portabella mushrooms in an elegantly subdued yet still tasty tomato cream sauce. As the old adage goes, good things come to those who wait. Mozzarella Cheese-Infused Tomato Bisque Sensation might be a nice name for the soup they brought out, but we’ll settle for calling it a damn fine tomato mozzarella bisque soup.
The bread arrived after the soup, a minor downer for somebody (like me) with visions dipping the salty bread into the bisque and squeegeeing the sides of the bowl. But this became less of an offense when the beet and manchego salad arrived, a surprising treat that was in many ways the highlight of the meal. Here was a concoction with a great balance of raspberry vinaigrette, shaved manchego cheese, and lumpettes of dried sundry fruit. In a word: Outstanding.
The entrées were a mixed bag. My duck was cooked perfectly, with just the right amount of juice, salt, and pepper. The penne pasta with oxtail filling, however, was not the best pasta I’ve ever tried, with little filling and not much imagination. But here’s the deal—the menu changes completely every couple of weeks, meaning you could go to Saffron time and again and never repeat the same meal twice. I know that the ambiance and friendly service is enough to draw me back. One side note, Friday’s between 5–6PM you can order from the same menu for $20 while being treated to live jazz. For romantic dining in Riverside Saffron is hard to beat. Next time, I won’t take my cousin.
Saffron at the Riverside Art Museum, 3425 Mission Inn Ave., Riverside, (951) 367-1396; www.safrons.us; Open lunch Mon.–Fri., 11:30AM–2PM; dinner Fri. & Sat. 5:30PM