This restaurant in Chessington opened in May 2016 (it was previously a Bangladeshi restaurant). Saffron Summer has as its head chef Awanish Roy, who trained at the Oberoi hotel group in India and then cooked at Cinnamon Club on London. Following this he headed up the kitchen teams of Roti Chai and Chai Ki in London. He was not working on the evening of my visit.
The dining room is quite smart, with reasonably well-spaced tables covered in crisp white tablecloths. Ironically, given the name of the restaurant, the room was witheringly wintry on this January evening. The amusingly named “heating” in the restaurant was switched on but was wildly ineffective, and the overall effect was anything but summery. I very nearly put my winter coat back on at the dining table, and probably should have done.
The menu ranges across India, with dishes from Goan prawns to Hyderabadi biryani, and exotica such as wild boar vindaloo. Starters were priced from £4.95 to £6.95, main courses from £9.95 to £12.95, side dishes £ 3.95 to £4.95 and desserts £4.50. The wine list started at £15.99 and had labels such as Cave de Pomerols Le Jade Viognier at £19.99 for a bottle that you can find in the high street for £7, Matakana Pinot Noir at £31.99 compared to its retail price of £15, and Dominique Mugneret Nuit-St-georges Vielle Vignes at £79.99 for a wine that will set you back about £43 in a shop. Unfortunately the list omitted vintages, always the sign of a place that has but a token interest in its wine list, or is too lazy to reprint the list when vintages change.
Popadoms came with three chutneys, two of which were made in house: good tomato chutney and an even better one with shrimp. We started with a little amuse-bouche of golgappa (pani puri), a crisp puri into which you pour flavoured water involving tamarind chutney, chilli, chaat, chickpeas and potato, and then pop into your mouth whole. This was very good, the puri suitably crisp and the pani (water) having plenty of flavour and a good kick of sweetness from the tamarind (13/20).
To start with I had a trio of tandoori chicken pieces: one was flavoured with red chilli and cumin, one was a malai tikka with cardamom, the other flavoured with wild garlic. The chicken pieces were carefully cooked and their distinct flavourings came through well (easily 13/20). Although the tandoor is gas-fired, the tandoori dishes are given a charcoal smoke after marinating in order to mimic the effect of a charcoal tandoor. Also good was sev batata puri, which had crisp puris covered with onions, potato, sev (crunchy noodles made from chickpea flour), green and sweet chutney and yoghurt. The balance of flavours was well judged – a enjoyable blend of sweetness and gentle spice, and a pleasing mix of textures. There were also little balls of fried spinach to add an extra flavour (13/20).
For the main course, the only technical slip of the meal was a fish curry made with tilapia. Unfortunately this was not firm enough in texture, and the promised coconut flavour in the sauce was missing in action. It was decent enough, but not quite as it should have been (11/20). By contrast a chicken biryani was surprisingly good. I had just returned from Hyderabad so was not expecting something as authentic as this in Surrey. The version here had light, fluffy rice, chicken that avoided dryness and came in a proper pot sealed with pastry, the seal broken when served to release the subtle spicy fragrances within. There could have been a bit more chicken relative to rice, but this was very good (14/20). Also lovely was jeera aloo methi, the potatoes having excellent texture and flavoured with garlic, cumin and fresh fenugreek (14/20). Dal makhani, slow-cooked for 12 hours, was another good dish, topping with lotus seed crisps (14/20). Naan bread had pleasingly supple texture, served properly hot (13/20).
Desserts were mostly bought in, so I didn’t bother trying these. Service was friendly, though on this quiet Monday night there was little else for the staff to do but look after us, so they were not exactly stretched. The bill came to £44 a head including beer. Overall I liked Saffron Summer, with its ambitious menu and generally very capable cooking. My only real caveat is that, unless they fix the heating, be wary of visiting on a winter night, or wrap up warm if you do. The food quality is a distinct couple of steps up from a typical neighbourhood Indian restaurant. (Editor's note - I gather that the heating has now been fixed)