Mexican-French fusion isn't a new concept in Chicago -- Carlos Gaytan does it rather well at Mexique, and even the newly opened Fogon in River West crosses the Atlantic for a dish or two -- but credit chef/owner Yanitzin Sanchez (chef Yanni to her fans) with a very personal and frequently delicious approach.
Sanchez comes by the duality honestly, doing her early training in her native Mexico before earning a degree at the Ecole Boulangerie in Paris. Declaring French technique "the first basis for any chef," Sanchez opened Sabor Saveur ("taste" or "flavor" in Spanish and French) 18 months ago to apply that technique to Mexican ingredients. (Gaytan, by contrast, makes frequent use of French ingredients.)
This will manifest in unusual ways; Sanchez employs cilantro, rather than basil, in the mushroom duxelles that form the center of her chicken-breast roulade, and a saffron beurre blanc supports the bocoles, bite-size masa and black-bean cakes topped with chorizo, lobster or tilapia. There's a yummy fondue of Roquefort cheese with tequila and chipotle, and there are slender taquitos filled with pumpkin flowers and requeson cheese.
Most inventive of all is Sanchez's tamal, which contains not a hint of masa or corn husk. Instead, the beef and pork mix is bound in a square of phyllo dough; buried under an arugula salad containing almonds, avocado, watermelon and verdolaga (a parsley-ish Mexican herb), the tamal sits hidden, a surprise package awaiting discovery.
A fine piece of filet mignon plays second fiddle to the other ingredients on the plate, including a soft crust of pumpkin seeds and huazontle (a broccolilike vegetable), a pair of crispy croquettes made with sweet potato and coconut, and amaranth-sprinkled green beans. The yellow mole beneath, tasting much like creamed corn, was a minor disappointment.
Veal medallions over tamarind-mango sauce are superb; that dish and the filet are the best bets on the menu. The aforementioned chicken roulade can be hit or miss; the second time I tried it, the chicken was overcooked and dry, much like the pork roulade (with chipotle mashed potatoes) I'd ordered that night.
When grouper zarandeado is one of the specials (zarandeado often indicates grilling, though I'm fairly certain this grouper had been pan-roasted), grab it; the fish, on a pool of cauliflower puree surrounded by a red pepper and orange reduction and crusted with chicharrons, is absolutely delicious.
Desserts are especially good, and full of surprises. Pineapple chunks lurk within the rice pudding, and those two cinnamon sticks jutting from the surface are actually cinnamon-walnut tuiles, meant to be eaten. A dab of whipped ricotta goat cheese floats above the chocolate mousse, accented with thin drizzles of orange-rum reduction on the plate.
Sanchez's fig-coconut ante is a sort of cross between a flan and a creme brulee, firmed up but still creamy, cocoa dusted and served with dried fruit.
My favorite is the tejocote pulque: Tejocote is a Mexican citrus, and pulque is a peasant drink made from fermented maguey sap; together they make a fluffy, mousselike confection that Sanchez tops with tamarind jelly and passion fruit coulis; there's also some guajillo-pepper sauce incorporated into the mix, adding a persuasive shot of heat.
All this creativity won't dent your wallet unduly; only the occasional special rises above the $22 mark, and Sabor Saveur's BYO status (corkage is a modest $5) keeps the total lower still.
First-timers would do well to hit this place midweek, when the dining room is relatively quiet and servers have the time to explain the nuances of Sanchez's creations, which generally they do well.
Weekends are another story; the restaurant's 100 seats are filled, and animated chatter rebounds off the dining room's hard surfaces; between the din and the rush to deliver food, waiters can't manage a lot of conversation.
Sabor Saveur just resumed weekend brunch, which I highly recommend. It was a brunch visit a year ago that inspired me to review the evening fare, which should tell you something.
2013 W. Division St. 773-235-7310
Open: Dinner Tuesday-Sunday, brunch Saturday-Sunday
Entree prices: $14-$22
Credit cards: A, DC, DS, M, V
Reservations: Strongly recommended weekends
Other: Wheelchair accessible; BYO ($5 corkage)