Many in Lexington know that Dudley Square is a building with a lot of history within its walls. Not only did it serve as the home for notable Lexington restaurant Dudley’s for 28 years, it used to be a learning institution dating back to the late 1880s known as the Dudley School. Now occupying this setting is the restaurant Sabio, the “new kid in class” that would probably get reprimanded by a teacher for playing with its food.
Of course, no actual punishment will be necessary. Everything about Sabio, from its atmosphere to its international cuisine, is all worthy of praise.
Sabio was opened in April by executive chef Javier Lanza. The Honduras-born Lanza has certainly gotten around from a culinary standpoint, working as a chef in restaurants in New York City, Nashville and San Jose, Calif. You may have even sampled some of Lanza’s creations at other restaurants in Kentucky. He was a chef at the acclaimed bed and breakfast Amelia’s Field Country Inn in Paris, Ky., from 1996 to 2000. He also worked for The Signature Club and Jean Farris Winery in Lexington before more recently returning to Paris to open Migdalia’s.
When Lanza opened Sabio, he was very conscious of the space he was occupying. The name itself in Portugese translates to “being wise and educated” and he aptly named the bar area across the hall The Detention Bar. However, Sabio is no stroll down memory lane. Both the main dining area and the bar feature a hip, contemporary aesthetic that will allow you to feel welcome in a suit and tie or a t-shirt and jeans – not to mention its updated patio section with herbs grown in the garden that find their way into Sabio’s dishes.
And speaking of dishes, Sabio will take you across the globe with European, Latin American and Asian influence but with an emphasis on local ingredients. You’ll experience big flavors right out of the gate with any number of small plates. The potato gnocchi (one of Lanza’s secret recipes) is heavenly, with cloud-soft dumblings and roasted wild mushrooms in a sauce of smoked shallots and vermouth. Those looking for an Asian kick can find it in the delectable kimchi ribs, which are steamed instead of poached for extra tenderness and topped with a Hoisin barbecue sauce over napa cabbage and bok choy. Plus, one of its simplest starters, the wok-charred green beans, is the most addictive. They’re tossed with garlic, ginger root, plum wine and soy with the added punch of Korean chiles. I was shoveling these into my mouth at such a break-neck pace my chopsticks were starting to smoke.
While there are some differences between the menus at Sabio and The Detention Bar, you’ll likely be able to order whatever you want no matter where you spend your evening. However, you’ll have to ask about a special like the chicken lollipops. You read that right. The restaurant takes your typical chicken drumstick and has some fun with it by pushing the meat towards the end and deep-frying it before coating the chicken in a mango banana barbecue glaze for a playful presentation.
Sure, Sabio has a good time in the kitchen, but they can also crank out some serious entrees, whether it’s a filet mignon, duck with sweet potato and goat cheese puree, haricot vert and a port and juniper berry sauce or lamb chops with gruyere bread pudding, roasted carrots and a mint demi-glaze.
But Lanza will tell you his pride and joy are his scallops, and for good reason. The robust sea scallops are pan-seared a bit extra on one side to offer a bit of char and crunch to complement the delicate center. The addition of pancetta whipped mashed potatoes, wilted spinach, cherry tomatoes, crispy leeks and a garlic-tarragon beurre blanc sauce made this the best scallop dish I’ve ever tasted.
You can polish off your meal in fine fashion with dessert. Its Crema Quemada, Sabio’s version of crème brule with vanilla and fresh-grown lavender, sounded tempting. However, when I found out they made their ice creams in house, my mind was made up. Its coffee ice cream made with Bourbon County coffee brand Caffee Marco accompanies Lanza’s expertly executed chocolate fondant, another one of Lanza’s specialties that he takes with him to every restaurant he’s opened. After one bite, you’ll be grateful he brought it to the Bluegrass.
With a commitment to consistency, quality and creativity, Sabio is a restaurant Lexington diners are going to love to discover, occupying a familiar space with a fresh approach. If the Dudley School were still around and had a yearbook, I wouldn’t be surprised if Sabio was voted “Most Likely to Succeed.”
859.368.9901 | Dudley Square | 380 South Mill Street | sabiodudleysquare.com