Restaurant Sabor has a lot going for it

I'm always surprised that Baltimore County has so many chains and doesn't have more nice local restaurants - the kind that seem to pop up every other week in Baltimore City. If this bothers you, too, you'll be happy that Restaurant Sabor is now open in the Lutherville/Timonium area.

You may not know the owner and chef by name; but if you eat out a lot, you've probably tasted Rodolfo ("Roddy") Domacasse's good cooking at Brasserie Tatin, Due or Rudys' 2900 (all three now closed); Linwood's; Gertrude's at the BMA; or Donna's.

Now Domacasse, a native of Puerto Rico, has his own kitchen to do with as he wishes. He's created a menu for Sabor that's a hodgepodge, but in a good way. The influences range from French to South American. Many of the dishes are on trend, and the ingredients for the most part are very seasonal.

The daily specials show the range of Domacasse's cuisine, starting with venison with chestnut foie gras mousse (Monday) and ending with Puerto Rican lasagna (Sunday).

If you're wondering how any new restaurant will survive in this economy, Sabor has three things going for it.

First, and most important, the food is really good.

Second, given the quality of the food, prices are reasonable. Almost all the entrees are under $25. If that's too much for you, there are a couple of gourmet sandwiches and some dinner salads that are less. You also have the option of some of the appetizer/small plates: The three delicious sliders, for instance - one with blue cheese, one with fried onions seasoned with balsamic vinegar, and one plain - will make a light meal.

Third, Sabor is BYOB, at least until it gets a liquor license. These days that's not the liability it once was; bringing your own means the check will be less. There's a $5 corkage fee per table, not bottle.

Restaurant Sabor's biggest drawback is the atmosphere, which is decidedly untrendy; but that hasn't hurt, say, Christopher Daniel nearby. It's comfortable enough, with padded chairs, banquettes and lots of fabric, which cuts down on noise. Wood paneling and furniture add warmth. The problem is the large display kitchen, with its too-bright fluorescent light. It dominates the dining room and keeps the restaurant from being cozy.

Still, once you taste Domacasse's fried oysters with a touch of housemade barbecue sauce, you'll forget about the fluorescent lights. The oysters melt on the tongue. Everything, by the way, is housemade, including the excellent, freshly baked focaccia.

Sweet potato gnocchi - the only pasta regularly on the current menu (there is a pasta du jour) are, of course, made in house. Their brown butter and sage sauce brings out the sweet flavor, and shavings of Reggiano cheese and an apple confit add variety to what could be a somewhat monotonous main course. Do order the gnocchi with the tender slices of white-meat chicken, a very attractive option. (Your other choice is duck breast, which also sounds good.)

There are some traditional appetizers, like the sliders and fried oysters, but also dishes like the Pork "Pancita," with slices of pork belly arranged on cabbage braised with red wine and fried rounds of plantain, an entertaining interplay of ingredients.

If that sounds a little exotic for you, consider the seafood turnovers. The filling inside the tender pastry was too finely chopped for me to figure out the ingredients, but if I had to guess I would say shrimp, scallops and crab. A smooth roasted red-pepper sauce pooled around the two turnovers - excellent except it was cool and the turnovers were hot.

The current menu is clearly a winter one, with upscale comfort food as its mainstay. One of the best examples is the superb braised short ribs. The beef falls off the bone, full of flavor, and a subtly sweet parsnip puree instead of the expected mashed potatoes gives it some pizazz. Real baby carrots, not the kind that are cut to look like baby carrots, add more sweetness and color.

Domacasse has a way with seafood. It might be fat ivory scallops, arranged on a Nantua sauce, rich with cream and flavored with lobster. If you're lucky, the fish special will be Atlantic char, something like salmon but more delicate, perfectly cooked and perched perhaps on a round of soft polenta surrounded with spinach.

Desserts, such as the almond-pear strudel, are inventive and seasonal. A chocolate pot de creme is a less overwhelming but equally satisfying choice for those who have overdosed on the ubiquitous death-by-chocolate cake. The tres leches cake was as appealing and fresh as you'll find anywhere, but my personal favorite was the Busby's Orange Cake, actually two small sponge cakes, or babas, only soaked in orange syrup rather than rum.

There's a lot of wringing of hands in the restaurant business these days because of the recession. But when a place can produce food this satisfying, I don't think it has much to worry about. True, I ate there when Sabor was only half full, which might be why the meal was so well paced. And I would have liked to enjoy a meal this fine in more intimate surroundings. I also prefer not to bring my own bottle, especially when I'm not paying. But none of those things detracted much from my enjoyment of Restaurant Sabor's good food.

restaurant sabor
Address: 12240 Tullamore Road, Lutherville

Contact: 410-628-7227

Hours: Open for lunch Wednesday through Friday, brunch Saturday and Sunday, dinner nightly

Prices: Appetizers, $7-$10; entrees, $16-$28

Food: *** 1/2

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ** 1/2

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