Sabio is one of those restaurants I really want to shower with unconditional love. I like the location: the first floor of a former school house at Dudley Square, with (usually) ample free parking.
I like the appropriateness of the name: In a nod to the former school, Sabio, loosely translated, means "knowledgeable, well-educated."
I like the décor: Polished wood floors, exposed brick, ceiling fans, candles in wall niches and quirky art by Australian artist (and former chef) Gordon Richards.
I like that you can eat in the bar, in one of two dining rooms, and in fine weather, on one of Lexington's patios.
Never miss a local story.
Generally speaking, I really like the food. On a recent Friday night, my dining companion and I tried several appetizers, two from the regular menu and one special. My friend enjoyed the lobster mac and cheese served with a grilled baguette ($18). That's a staple on many restaurant menus, but the lobster is often MIA, obscured by thick globs of melted cheese.
That was not the case at Sabio. My friend showed me the thick chunks of lobster in her dish.
I didn't fare as well. Opting for the mussels, a special of the night ($11). I discovered that half the shells were missing their occupants, and the broth, rather than rich, thick and aromatic, was disappointingly watery.
We shared the taquitos dorados ($11), shrimp and crispy potato tacquitos, with tomatillo salsa, chili-lime cilantro aioli and sprinkled with queso fresco. Combining so many flavors can be distracting, but in this case, the blended flavors resulted in a seamless symphony.
Entrees were equally good. The 12-ounce ribeye was thick and tender, and it came with truffle-infused whipped potatoes, grilled asparagus, red chile barbecue glace and caramelized onions ($29.)
The crispy airline chicken breast (not sure using the term "airline" is the best way to sell this dish) proved very un-airline — a good thing, to be sure — on the plate. The chicken breast ($24), drizzled with local honey and apple cider reduction, was tender, moist and delicious.
The chicken is normally served over whipped potatoes and a butternut squash and fava bean succotash, but when I asked to substitute another side, the goat cheese bread pudding, for the succotash, I was told it would be a $10 charge. My server did bring me sautéed spinach at no extra cost.
Chef and owner Javier Lanza, whose bio lists stints at Amelia's Field Country Inn and Jean Farris Winery, mostly has the food part right, which leads to the other key component of a pleasurable dining experience: service.
I know it was Friday night, and I know that Miranda Lambert was in town. But all I can say about the service is that it was bad. Our reservation was for 7 p.m., and it was 7:50 before our server came to take our order. Not even so much as a basket of bread appeared on the table during that time.
One solo female diner at the table next to me — getting nothing other than a glass of water in the 30 minutes she sat there — finally got up and left. A man at another table began knocking on his wine glass. I thought he was preparing to make a toast, but my friend, who had a better view of the table, said he was summoning the server, who had delivered a steak but no steak knife.
I don't think the servers were lazy or uncaring; in contrast, they often appeared frazzled and rattled. I subtly broached the subject to our server, who admitted that they were assigned tables in both dining rooms, and across the hall in the packed bar. (Note to management: Give these guys a break and streamline the service, please.)
Unwilling to leave on this sour note, I returned the next week, this time at lunch. My dining companions and I were the first ones in the restaurant, so service was considerably better. I'm happy to say that our server remained attentive throughout our meal, even when the crowd started arriving.
So, I'm guessing the bottom line here is that quality of service depends on whether you go for dinner on a busy Friday night or lunch during the middle of the week.
The lunch menu might be limited, but what it does have is very good. The French onion soup ($6) is among the best I've had. My dining companion said the turkey and brie sandwich with Granny Smith apples and apricot sauce ($11) was delicious, and all of us split the sweet biscuit with strawberries and cream, drizzled with balsamic syrup ($9) and pronounced it delectable.
Sabio has the ingredients for a successful dining experience: good food at competitive prices, cool ambience (you don't have to be a truant to spend an hour in the Detention Bar) and excellent location.
Now, just work on that service.