Visiting Sabor with a wife recovering from a dicky tummy and a mother who disdains all spice was possibly not ideal but I can’t shake the feeling this is an unfortunately liminal restaurant. Take the location: it is just a bit too far from Angel, just a bit too far from Upper Street, just a bit too far from Highbury & Islington. Of course, the same could be said of the excellent Akari a couple of doors up the road. Then there is the design. Lovely colourful tables and designer chairs are crammed into a narrow space made even narrower by an unneccessary bar. The result is that you feel hemmed in, even when the restaurant is pretty empty. A huge picture window lets in light during the day but makes you feel uncomfortably exposed at night. The view out onto Essex Road isn’t exactly stellar either.
The service is friendly but diffident to the point of being insecure, not to mention slightly deaf. On arriving I said there was a booking for Lewis at 7pm and was then asked if I had booking. When the spare fourth place was cleared away they accidently took my side plate (and there was no knife for the side plate). The drinks order turned slightly comical when the waiter seemed to assume the bottle of wine I’d ordered was just for me. It was pleasant but all a bit ineffectual. Food, on the other hand, was pleasant but nothing more.
The menu is South American, covering the whole continent rather than been Argentine or Peruvian as is more typical. It suggests a lively interest in fusion and unusual ingredients but the results are more pedestrian. This was perfectly demonstrated by the three starters. We ordered corn fritters, carimanolas and quesadillas and they were all served in exactly the same way: two examples of each not exactly pretty savoury, a miniscule dab of salsa and a couple of superfluous lettuce leaves on the side. Now, I know South Americans don’t really do vegetables but this is just embarrasingly unimaginative plating. The food was better than it looked – the carimanolas (cassava fritters stuffed with mushrooms, cheese and red peppers) in particular – but, at £6 each, portion size was pretty weedy. I did at least get some guacamole with my quesadillas but this was offset by an almost total lack of filling.
Despite my remarks about vegetables above, the mains did offer chargrilled aubergine stuffed with quinoa, butternut squash, yellow courgettes, peas and cherry tomatoes which N felt was the safest option for her. This was supposedly served with a chilled coriander cream but it was simply cream that was the dominant flavour of the dish. It proved too much for her. My mum also made little headway with her duck which she found over-seasoned. She doesn’t have a huge appetite though and her palatte tends to err on the side of caution. Our waiter was very solicitous and wrapped both mains for us to take home. I ordered the Argentinian rib-eye because I was in a meat mood and South American beef is justified renowned. It came medium-rare rather than rare and, whilst it decent flavour and fat, there are many better places in London to get such a steak (Buen Ayres, for example). Sides of papas criollas were nice but over-cooked and stingy on the salsa and fried plantain was fried plantain. At £2.50 each they provided better value than much of the rest of the meal.
By this stage we were down to one person for pudding. My mum ordered banana bread which was advertised on the menu as being “light and fluffy”. Well, yes, it certainly should be but I’m afraid I’ll be the judge of that and in this case it wasn’t. My glass of Gewürztraminer turned out to be complementary because my mum hadn’t liked the duck and despite the fact they’d wrapped the leftovers for us (although bizarrely they removed the rice before parcelling it up). We were also offered complimentary coffess which we declined because it was bed time. So the attitude is spot on, far more accommodating than is usual for London, but perhaps reflects the fact they are used to people thinking they’ve fallen just short of the mark.
This is the second time I’ve eaten at Sabor and the experience was much the same last time. My brief notes from the previous meal are: “We both started with scallops but I wasn’t convinced about the quality of the scallops themselves and there was too much going on on the plate. I followed this with the shredded brisket. It is was a generous portion and the meat was tender but it was just a load of brisket in thick, bland gravy with equally bland rice and beans. N said her seafood stew was very flavoursome though. Overall a mediocre experience and I am surprised they are staying afloat.”
£36 a head, including service, a non-alcoholic cocktail of maracuya, apple juice, mint and raspberries and a quite nice bottle of Malbec. On the bus home we went passed Tierra Peru, another visually slick but notably empty South American restaurant. It is new and finding its feet though, so perhaps it needs testing out because I certainly won’t be going back to Sabor.