Since sabor is the Spanish word for flavor, one wonders: Why did the owners so name an Italian restaurant? Was sapore taken already? According to a quick look in the Miami area phone books -- nope. The Italian word is still up for grabs.
But in terms of ethnic identity the Spanish name is by no means the strangest thing about this several-months-old restaurant, as a look at the menu will confirm. The "selection of Japanese/Mexican sushi" is not available anymore -- that was just a sort of get-acquainted crossover dish from an even newer eatery just opened by restaurateur Roberto Ruggeri (of the international Bice empire) in the same building complex as Sabor. But how Italian does grilled Atlantic shrimp with a mango and papaya salsa sound? Or a New England-style steamed lobster with corn on the cob?
Fortunately for any readers as confused as this poor food critic, Sabor's own opening press release provides the answer. The eatery is not just Italian. It is "Mediterranean-Italian." And Mediterranean has come to mean anything goes, as American diners surely know, since the term is as American as apple pie and chop suey; you'll find Moroccan food, Provençal food, Ligurian food, but you won't find food called Mediterranean in any of the countries actually bordering that sea.
1501 Collins Ave, Miami Beach; 305-532-4131.
Open daily 6:30 p.m. to 5:00 a.m., plus Sunday brunch 11:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
Actually today's food-trend trackers predict a swing away from hybrid Pan-Everywhere food toward distinct diversity, with chefs trying to convey authentic ethnic flavors and sophisticated diners learning to tell and value the difference between, say, Sicilian and Ligurian (or Vietnamese and Cambodian, or Salvadorean and Ecuadorean) cuisines. But that's a mighty sophisticated swing. And this is Miami.
Sabor's setting at the north end of Ocean Drive (with, naturally, no view of the ocean) is actually spectacular enough that blackened Cajun canned tuna fish tiramisu would probably seem fine. The modish modern interior, containing a mix of nicely spaced tables and conversation pits with comfy couches, seems made for Milan Fashion Week models to pose in, and will doubtless prove popular as the weather heats up. But during our two late-winter visits, the hot spot was the restaurant's sexy, sultry candlelit terrace, hidden by thick tropical hedges from the bridge 'n' causeway hordes lined up on the street to get into Billboardlive (in the same complex); on a Wednesday night, the patio was packed.
Possibly that's because Wednesday, from 7:00 p.m. to midnight, is Lobster Night -- a terrific deal at only $13.95 for a one-and-a-half-pound lobster from Maine (which borders the Mediterranean about 1000 miles to the west; native Mediterranean lobsters, like Florida lobsters, are the clawless kind). Of the four styles available, my partner and I tried the above-mentioned classic New Englander with melted butter for dunking the steamed shellfish, plus the most dietetic-sounding offering, a Provençal-style grilled lobster with fresh herbs. (Other choices were fra diavolo, with spicy tomato sauce on linguine, and "French curry-style" with that traditional French favorite, mango chutney.) Accompaniments were so-so at best. An alleged potato tart with the Provençal preparation proved to be just roasted potato; the New England's foil-wrapped baked potato was burnt-tasting, and a half-ear of corn on the cob had the starchy/mushy texture of old corn that had been frozen. The lobsters themselves, though, were quite good, a bit chewy but very juicy; even the grilled model was not, as is common, dry or overdone.
It took a while to get more than one lobster-cracker, and no bibs were provided at all, but it was actually great fun to get clambake-sloppy in such a glam venue. Even more fun was watching the elegantly dressed foreign woman at the next table -- who had apparently never cracked a lobster or in any other way picked up food with her hands -- try to eat her lobster, shell and all, with a knife and fork.
Since the most authentically Italian meat/fish secondo, sea bass in acqua pazza (literally "crazy water"; this traditional fishermen's dish was originally prepared in sea water), had disappeared from the menu by another visit, we opted for pasta entrées. Pappardelle with lamb ragout and braised vegetables, a sort of super-intensified, more substantial version of pasta Bolognese, will please any fan of today's back-to-basics stick-to-yer-ribs dishes like mutton shanks or short ribs. Even better was fresh tagliolini with lobster and wild mushrooms. Lobster bits were small, and the "wild" mushrooms were mostly the usual portobellos and shiitakes with just a few more exotic slippery slivers of porcini, but the pasta was beautifully al dente and its sauce -- a pink tomato type rather than the white cream stuff I'd expected -- was a lovely mix of richness and lightness, slightly creamy yet tangy-fresh.
All appetizers we tried were generously sized; many tables were, in fact, assembling grazing meals of just salads and starters. Most interesting was a four-item assaggini -- a not-so-little little platter featuring seared sesame tuna (like standard Japanese tuna tatake), smoked salmon (too lean and too smoky for everyone at my table), diced tuna tartare (very fresh), and, best, thin silky slices of swordfish carpaccio. Accompanying micro-greens required a microscope to find them; some sort of salad dressing would've helped the sparse shreds, too.
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Fried calamari was a big basket of lightly battered, fairly tender squid rings supplemented by small, deep-fried pieces of zucchini and artichoke so good I wished there had been much more of the vegetables. On the side were two sauces, a mild lemony aioli and -- surprise! -- a marinara. The real surprise: The marinara was super, not the usual too-gloppy red sauce but a refreshing tomato salsa.
Both salads we tried were entrée-sized, but the chopped Mediterranean with goat cheese and pesto crostini, being mostly a mountain of romaine, cucumbers, and insufficiently ripe tomatoes, became boring long before two of us polished off the plate. The 1500 Ocean Drive salad -- arugula, red onion, orange sections, olives, and shrimp with citrus vinaigrette -- was more interesting, and the grilled shellfish were cooked perfectly tender. Although oranges and red onion are a classic Sicilian combination that works well, the olives, briny and overpowering, were a mistake; and if there was any citrus save lemon in the dressing, it wasn't evident.
We tried only one dessert, hazelnut praline semifreddo with moscato zabaglione, because this "half-cold" unchurned, soft frozen custard has long been a personal favorite when it's nicely mousselinelike. Unfortunately Sabor's was leaden. Next time we'll stick to a foolproof authentic Italian finisher, limoncello liqueur -- or, if we're feeling super Mediterranean, come for the brand-new Brazilian Sunday brunch.