A smallish Lutherville strip mall is the setting for Sabor, a casual fine-dining restaurant with a Puerto Rican influence brought by chef-owner Rudolfo Domacasse who's worked in several notable Baltimore-area kitchens. We loved dinners there but had never tried the lunch menu. We were pressed for time but were in the neighborhood and decided to risk a slow-food experience.
11:59 a.m. We arrive and within five minutes we had drinks and a pretty good idea what we'd order. I like the concept of the club sandwich, but I stopped ordering them eons ago because they often came over-breaded and either under-filled or packed with second-rate ingredients. At finer restaurants, I tend to want to go with something a bit less prosaic. I ordered the club ($12) this time because the smoked chicken called to me and past experience with Restaurant Sabor suggested this kitchen would present a good example of the classic sandwich.
My dining companion ordered the fish and chips. The fish on this day was tilapia at the market price of $14. She opted for "batitas" — sweet potato fries, while I went with what I presumed would be the more mundane papitas — regular old fries. Sabor also offers a carb-avoidance choice of greens with choice of dressing, a welcome option if you want to lighten your lunch, but at Sabor, resisting the fries might be pushing the discipline thing a bit far.
We didn't order starters partly because the options were soups or salads and mostly because we were in more than a normal hurry to enjoy lunch and skedaddle off to urgent business in another county. Which leads me to Sabor's interior.
Sabor's deep warm colors, tapestry wall coverings and draped ceiling perimeter, along with low interior lights that back the natural light from its large windows give the dining room an intimate feel. But the restaurant also touts its community-table setting, and for me the mix feels weird. Acoustics may play a role. The few tables that were seated while we were there were two or three yards from us in any direction, but I could clearly hear conversations, details, whole sentences, and I wasn't trying.
12:23 p.m. The entrees are delivered. It's no small feat to justify 12 bucks for a club sandwich. Sabor comes as close as anyone. The smoked chicken was delicate and savory, the bacon thick and the bread thin, light and toasted golden. All layers, including cheddar, lettuce and tomato, were carefully proportioned. But the fries nearly stole the show. They were light, crisp and generously seasoned with truffle salt. I'd asked for ketchup before I tried them. By the time our server brought it, I'd decided ketchup would be an insult.
The sweet potato fries also shoved their way toward the top, full of fresh batitas flavor that too often doesn't survive the process of making their exteriors crisp.
The tilapia was a welcome and well turned out alternative to cod. Same with the batter. It formed a crisp balloon around the fish without a trace of clingy, uncooked batter. Nothing wet or heavy about it.
12:39 p.m. We could have paid our bill and left very contented. But remember, I'd overheard the dessert selection. Given Sabor's treatment of a club, fish and fries, what might it do with creme brulee and apple crisp? Curiosity got the best of us.
The answer: the dreamily light custard, made on premises and speckled with those little black seeds that signal true vanilla goodness, was sublime, as good as I've ever had. The caramelized sugar coating was, on the other hand, too thick for my taste and overwhelmed rather than complemented the cream. I ate around it.
A blessed scoop of ice cream mitigated the apple crisp's exceptional sweetness, to which even the spiced apples contributed. We practically had to force ourselves to eat it all. But we did and weren't a bit sorry, just a tad sugar-rushy. The desserts were $8 each.
Greetings and service add a family feel to Sabor, not over-the-top at all, but there's a definite sense of comfort and welcome here that you tend not to get at trendier upscale houses. Our server was relaxed and genial, in keeping with the casual-fine dining atmosphere Sabor advertises.
12:56 p.m. We finished and checked out, having taken longer than we expected because of the temptation of dessert. Not a bad way to mess up a busy schedule.
Note: Sabor doesn't serve alcoholic beverages but you can take your own; if you forget, there's a handy liquor store just a few doors down from the restaurant.
Where: 12240 Tullamore Road, Lutherville
Lunch hours: 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Friday
Lunch entrees: $9-$12 with a few higher priced
[Key:✭✭✭✭: Outstanding;✭✭✭: Good; ✭✭: Fair or Uneven; ✭: Poor]
Dining time 57 minutes