It's Friday night in the 'burbs, and the long wait for tables at places like Bertucci's, Hightopps, and The Corner Stable is just beginning. But we're headed to a new restaurant, an unknown, in an unremarkable shopping center off Padonia Road in Lutherville. And we're fighting gnarled traffic on York Road—and not liking the constant honking and lane changing. We only hope the trip to Restaurant Sabor is worth the drive.
The menu sounded promising online and the chef/owner, Rodolfo "Roddy" Domacassé, has proven himself at Brasserie Tatin, Linwoods, and other fine-dining spots. Still, the restaurant is a storefront. Its neighbors are a cleaners and grocery store. We were not getting our expectations up. But perhaps we should have.
After arriving, we were seated only a few minutes before our eager, prep-boy waiter brought us an amuse-bouche—crisp, batter-coated crawfish. This gift from the chef set the pace for the rest of the appealing meal. The only thing you have to do is settle in on the comfy seating and wait for your food to arrive. You do have to plan ahead, though, if you're in the mood for something alcoholic. We had forgotten the restaurant is BYOB, so we came empty-handed. But it's not a problem since there is a wine and spirits shop nearby. Although there is a $5 corkage fee per table, it covers all your bottles, no matter how many you want opened.
We were a little worried for the restaurant's welfare in the beginning of the evening because there were so many empty tables. Soon enough, the place was properly packed for a weekend night, and people were even waiting in the tiny vestibule. Sabor, which means "flavor" in Spanish, has a welcoming vibe, which jibes with Domacassé's mission to create a neighborhood spot. The dining room décor—by the always creative Rita St. Clair—has the feel of a cozy cottage with rich, wood tones, floral fabrics, and an angular ceiling in the American Arts and Crafts tradition. There's also a bright, open kitchen, giving it an appropriate modern-day flourish. So much for us almost dismissing it as just a storefront!
Sabor's humble plate-glass exterior also doesn't prepare you for the kitchen's attentiveness to fresh ingredients and classic preparations. The escargot vol-au-vent was perfectly executed with plump snails in a luscious brown broth redolent of sweet onions and covered with a thin, flaky pastry.
But the chef isn't all about Gallic influences—as the restaurant's name suggests, he also borrows from his Latin American heritage with dishes like fried oysters with barbacoa sauce. This pretty appetizer pairs golden oysters with a handful of soft baby lettuces and drizzles of barbacoa, a piquant barbecue sauce. We liked the delicate oysters but could have done with less breading, which masked, instead of enhanced, the flavor. But what we really craved was more of the excellent, tangy barbacoa for the crunchy morsels.
While we relished our entrees—a half roasted chicken and grilled salmon—two of the side dishes truly caught our fancy—the fries and spaghetti-squash noodles. They sound ordinary, right? Not so. What appeared to be typical french fries turned into a food addiction with the sprinkling of earthy truffle salt (from black truffles, our server told us). It's the kind of flavor surprise that immediately makes you take notice. It's subtle, yet pervasive—and so much better than truffle oil, which can quickly overpower foods, turning them from "wow" to "ew." The fries are called "papitas fritas" on the menu, which, translated, is Spanglish for "all is good." We agree.
But the spaghetti squash was the showstopper. Can ordinary vegetable strands create this kind of intense emotion? Absolutely. In fact, one of our diners went so far as to call them "orgasmic." And we had to smile contentedly in agreement as we devoured another bite. These tender squash noodles were so decadent with their buttery coating and wonderful mouth feel that all you can do is succumb to their wiles.
The rest of the accompaniments were impressive, too: real baby carrots; tiny, caramelized Brussels sprouts; and an endearing sweet potato beignet, the size of a delicate quail egg. The roasted chicken, tasting of thyme infused under its skin, was tender and homey, and the salmon had the pedigree of a fish raised in the wild. Its mojo (citrusy vinaigrette) topping, though, was too understated.
Desserts are house-made, and the tres leches cake, a traditional Mexican finale, is about as real as it gets with a moist white cake, whipped-cream frosting, and maraschino cherries. But Bubsy's orange cake, which our waiter described as a "lighter" dessert, was the most impressive finish. First, you're surprised that the "cake" is actually three mini-Bundt-size cakes, and then you're entranced by the texture, awash with the perfume of tropical orange groves.
At lunch, the restaurant attracts a Mays Chapel crowd—retiree couples and moms in between carpools to private schools—who are scattered amid the tables and banquettes lining the walls. We were treated to another fresh-faced, mop-topped waiter, who was just as helpful as our dinner server.
There's the usual midday lineup on the menu—soups, salads, burgers, a steak sandwich, grilled chicken. There's also a quiche and an omelet of the day. We opted for a seafood wrap. It was smaller than we anticipated but packed with fresh chunks of shrimp, scallops, and lump crab in a thin, mayonnaisey-type dressing with a pleasant, sweet note of pineapple juice.
Restaurant Sabor, with its earnest staff, serene interior, and stellar food, seems to ascribe to the old vaudeville adage, "Always leave them wanting more." Indeed.