This Indian restaurant may not warrant a special trip to Mirdif City Centre, but as mall dining goes, it exceeds expectations.
Zafran is a modern Indian restaurant in a mall. When you first enter the largish dining area, the space feels ever so slightly hollow and rather exposed. This wasn't helped when we visited by the fact that it was almost empty. But, if you weave your way through the room and take a seat at one of the raised booths, then thanks to the atmospheric lighting (all orangey-red) and high-backed chairs, things start to feel more intimate.
Despite the dearth of customers, our waiter managed to be attentive without overdoing it. He didn't hover unnecessarily close to the table making us feel uncomfortable, which is something that happens all too often when the staff outnumber the diners, so credit to him for that.
The menu here is varied, without being overwhelmingly long and after a bit of debate, we chose to start with tawa murgh and a samosa, pakora and bhajii platter. Both of these were good. The samosa pastry was crisp, flaky and free of grease and the cauliflower and potato filling was nicely spiced. Onion bhajiis were piping hot and dark golden brown and the chickpea masala served on the side was lovely; the pulses were tender without being mushy and they had a nice background warmth. As my friend remarked, it was the paneer pakoras that let this dish down. The batter coating the mild, plain white cheese lacked seasoning and spice and as a result, they tasted bland. My tawa murgh, on the other hand, was a success. The chicken meat had been shredded, rather than minced, which gave the patties texture and the mixture was nicely flavoured with chilli and cloves. They had a pleasantly crunchy crust and had obviously been served straight from the pan. A few lettuce leaves and a slick of tangy, gingery sauce was all that was needed to finish the dish off. Our main courses arrived rather abruptly (the starter plates were still on the table) and they veered from the very good to the distinctly average. Naan bread was borderline perfect; thin and pillowy with glistening, blackened edges. The plain version was worthy of praise, but the khajoori naan was even better. It had been generously studded with nuts and dates, which had started to melt into a gooey mass in the tandoor. Sticky and delicious. A side order of baigan bharta had also been given a Middle Eastern twist. The deeply smoky, puréed aubergine was slightly sweet, thanks to the roasted garlic and a spoonful of clean, milky labneh balanced the strong, charcoal aftertaste of the vegetable well.
The two meat main courses weren't bad, it's just that they both lacked a certain something. My friend's kadai jhinge looked and tasted fresh and the prawns were well cooked, but the tomatoey sauce just didn't have enough about it to make an impression. It needed layers of spice or a hint of ginger and garlic - something to liven up the taste. Similarly, while my gilafi sheeken (lamb kebabs) were nicely flavoured with coriander and chilli on the outside, this didn't penetrate through to the centre and the meat was slightly dry.
A shared dessert of gulab jamun - deep-fried dough balls soaked in sugar syrup - had, for some reason, been flecked with silver leaf (or foil, who can be sure?). Either way, they weren't quite sweet enough and tasted of old oil. The texture of the baked yoghurt cheesecake, meanwhile, reminded me of curdled custard, so wasn't exactly the high point of the meal.
Still, as mall dining experiences go, a meal at Zafran exceeds expectations. It might not warrant a special trip to Mirdif City Centre, but if you happen to be passing, it's well worth dropping in.
A meal for two at Zafran, Mirdif City Centre, Dubai, costs Dh240, not including service. To book call 04 284 0987. All meals are paid for by The National and reviews are conducted incognito.