The first time I walked into Saffron Mediterranean Kitchen, it was a complete accident. As I walked down Alder Street, I saw one small restaurant that was bustling with activity, a sharp contrast with the quiet street around me. “If that many people are in there on a weekday, it must be pretty good,” I thought. As it turned out, that was a dramatic understatement. (Although it’s tough to get a seat at Saffron without a reservation, I lucked out and got a seat at the bar.) Saffron is one of the most flavorful, unique, and high quality restaurants in the Walla Walla Valley. My love of their constantly changing menu is only matched by my passion for their lamb tartar.
I sat down with chef and owner Chris Ainsworth to talk about this Walla Walla treasure.
“I’ve always loved to cook [Mediterranean] food… the style and the flavor,” Ainsworth asserted. To keep the flavors authentic, Ainsworth says, “I read a lot, eat out a lot, and travel as much as I can.” Ainsworth and his wife, Island, take an annual research-intensive vacation centered around culinary discoveries. They use these trips to inspire their menu. For example, their popular Turkish flatbread, the lahmacun, was inspired by one of their annual trips. “We ate a few of ’em when we were in Turkey and we loved them,” Ainsworth said. “What we do in Turkey is eat and eat and eat, and we get inspiration from that.” The gozleme, another popular menu item, was also influenced by their annual trip.
Other dishes start as Walla Walla-based experiments before Ainsworth is able to go out and taste the real thing. He says the first time he tastes a dish in the native country, it’s a relief to be able to say, “‘Oh, wow, cool, I was totally doing that right!'” People also come from the regions; “they’ll see a specialized dish and they love it” Ainsworth laughs.
The menu changes “as often as daily or as little as monthly”. A few things, though, stay the same consistently. The house salad and the hanger steak are permanent fixtures, for example. “Some people come in and that’s all they order,” the chef observed.
Saffron takes pains to ensure their food is as fresh as possible. “We order mostly locally… as much as I can!” Ainsworth says. “We use Washington and Oregon beef and Blue Valley Meats”. In the winter, Ainsworth collects butternut squash from a local farmer, who grows the gourds in his cellar. “We’re always seasonal,” he adds. Saffron’s fresh, homemade bread also comes from nearby: their kitchen contains two sourdough starters, including one that Ainsworth made himself and an eighty-four-year-old starter that he adopted. “The one I birthed myself is just a baby, only six years old,” he said.
This attention to freshness, authenticity, and flavor profiles has gained national recognition. Ainsworth has been nominated as the James Beard Award Best Chef in the Northwest, every year for the last five years, constituting five out of the six years that Saffron has been open.
The small, cozy environment makes Saffron feel comfortable and inviting and the stellar service complements the spectacular food perfectly. “We’re geared towards whatever your mood is,” Ainsworth says, “whether that is a flatbread and a beer or a multicourse meal.”