For a small group of islands floating in the middle of the Arabian Gulf, Bahrain is home to quite a few hidden gems. One of its oldest and best-preserved towns is located on the island of Muharraq, connected to the capital, Manama, on the main island by three causeways. Muharraq has many attractions, including traditional mansions and historic buildings that have been converted into tiny museums, art galleries, and even a children’s library. But it is also home to Saffron, one of the island’s chicest hidden dining spots—so under the radar that it doesn’t maintain a Web site or Facebook page.
The brainchild of talented chef Naris Qambar, who is known for her signature date-infused cakes at Bahrain’s Jena Bakery, Saffron boasts four branches tucked into historic buildings throughout the island (including a nineteenth-century fort). My favorite, however, remains the original café, nestled behind the old shops of the recently renovated Souq Al Qaisareya. The charming eatery has been carved out of a 100-year-old building that yielded a few surprises during its renovation. Among them was the discovery of a traditional Bahraini date press, or madbissa, beneath the floor, which was used in the production of date syrup. Lebanese architect and interior designer Janan Habib made the madbissa a focal point of the space, covering it with a glass floor so that it could be viewed by patrons.
For a generation that hadn’t experienced Bahrain’s pre-oil past, Saffron’s vibe is both nostalgic and chic. Maintaining the building’s original stone walls, Habib went about creating a calm and cozy setting, enhanced by the classic melodies of Umm Kulthum and Abdel Halim Hafez wafting from a vintage radio. Diners sit at traditional tin-topped tables and in wood-carved chairs decked out in colorful, modern cushions, while old fans silently twirl from the ceiling above.
Surprisingly, Saffron has built its reputation on perfecting one specific meal, the traditional Bahraini breakfast, which is served throughout the day. Moments after being seated, a small welcome dish of plump dates and homemade sour cream is placed on the table together with a basket of fluffy traditional sweet breads and frothy cups of milky tea. This is followed by a sumptuous tapaslike spread of updated Bahraini delicacies served in pristine white bowls. These include a creamy egg-and-tomato mixture, sweet vermicelli topped with saffron, and fava beans seasoned in parsley and lemon.
Photos: Courtesy of Deena Aljuhani Abdulaziz