Tiny Moroccan restaurant Saffron De Twah debuts on Gratiot with North African flavors
Last week, I was cruising down Gratiot to pick up lunch and ended up with a history lesson in North African protectorates.
Saffron De Twah is gearing up to be one of the very few Moroccan restaurants in Metro Detroit. Located just south of Van Dyke in the former home of O'Quin's Shrimp House, this unique and unassuming spot is just doing carryout service for now while the small front dining room gets renovated.
Chef Omar Qais Anani has cooked a huge variety of food around Metro Detroit, from working in the kitchen at Michael Symon's Roast to running his modern Mediterranean cuisine food truck Qais. He tells me he decided on Moroccan food after determining it was something new he could offer to the neighborhood at an affordable price point.
"My main goal was to get food out to the masses and eventually we ended up with this building," he said of his tiny Gratiot Avenue space, which still has little signage and is hidden behind two food trucks. He said originally wanted to open an Asian cuisine restaurant called Fat Panda here.
"But the last, like, 10 restaurants that opened downtown were all Asian," he said. "So we 86'ed that idea ... my main goal was to be neighborhood-centric. I wanted the locals to be able to eat here. No offense to other people but the (restaurants) that kind of target the suburbs, you notice they don't last longer than a couple years downtown — and if they're not friendly to the locals, there're not around."
His lunch menu (the only menu currently available) is divided by protein: lamb, beef, chicken, fish and vegan. Standout dishes include the Morocco hot chicken ($9), a spin on fried chicken and waffles jazzed up with berbere hot sauce, caramelized honey butter, shredded carrots and grilled pineapple slices. The shawarma bowls come with chicken or skirt steak, plus a bed of lemon vegetable couscous, garlic sauce and pickled turnips and cucumbers ($7-$9).
The best deal might be the Moroccan meatball sub, which is a grilled sub bun stuffed with kofta meatballs smothered with a bright and flavorful saffron tomato sauce with dollops of whipped chevre cheese. They come with a side of potatoes flavored with harissa, a spicy and smoky condiment found in North African cooking. All this for $7.
So here we've got a mix of food items that are familiar to this area (subs, shwarma, etc.) but with spices and flavors that aren't typical around here, such as berbere, saffron, charmoula and harissa. All of it is served and packaged in eco-friendly, compostable carryout containers.
"I love North African cuisine, which is also Mediterranean, but Morocco in general is really unique -- they have a lot of the West and North African flavors," said Anani, who was born in Washington, D.C., and moved to a suburb of Grand Rapids when he was a teenager. "They speak Arabic, a lot of the dishes you see there (seem like) Middle Eastern food ... it's Moroccan food."
Anani, who went to culinary school at the Art Institute of Michigan, told me about the French and Spanish protectorates of Morocco, which took place in the first half of the 20th century, and their influence on the cuisine.
"You see a lot of French influence and a lot of Spanish influence in the cuisine and that's something unique to Morocco that you don't see in the rest of the Mediterranean, Arabic-style countries," he said.
The informative chef is currently slinging lunch with his staff during the week, and working on finishing the dining room on the weekends.
For now, Saffron De Twah, 7636 Gratiot in Detroit, is serving carryout 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon.-Fri. Order ahead by calling (586) 359-6138 or use the Grubhub app.