Taste Test: San Sai Japanese Restaurant
There are things one expects to find only in big-city restaurants — avant-garde creativity, carefully handcrafted ethnic fare. Then there’s the food Vermont does well: simple dishes designed to showcase local produce to its greatest advantage.
When these worlds collide and sophisticated craftsmanship meets superb materials, the experience can be unparalleled. Try as they may, The Spotted Pig and other New York gastropubs will never get their nose-to-tail, farm-fresh food quite as right as Bluebird Tavern , with its location abutting Burlington’s Intervale. Similarly, the combination of culinary accomplishment and locally grown native ingredients one finds at San Sai isn’t often available without a trip to the mountains of Japan.
San Sai  could hardly have a better home than its location on the Burlington waterfront in the high-ceilinged space previously occupied by Isabel’s, O, and Taste. Lake views are perfectly suited to the fishy menu, supplied partly by local distributor Wood Mountain Fish . But, even more importantly, food miles are enviably low for the restaurant’s primary supplier, Tamarack Hollow Farm  in the Intervale .
There, farmer Amanda Andrews grows fresh wasabi, burdock and shiso, to name a few items. San Sai’s chicken, including liver and heart on skewers, also comes from Tamarack Hollow. The wasabi is a particularly uncommon treat. Unlike the dry paste at most sushi joints, this finely grated root is fresh and light, with a surprising lack of the usual nostril-burning heat.
The interior of San Sai is as fresh visually as its food is on the palate, with a large, naturalistic example of ikebana standing in the alcove behind the host stand. A giant vase holds brightly colored flowers, brought down to earth by a piece of driftwood. Tapestries decorated simply with Japanese characters hang from the ceiling. On the walls above the metal tables, a series of sumi-e ink-and-wash paintings depict hungry cranes with their heads raised for a snack. There’s even artistry in the papers that hold the chopsticks, each printed with a sumi-e fish or flowers.
If this attention to detail augurs well for the food, so does the quirky menu. The chef-owners are American Chris Russo and his mentor, 35-year culinary veteran Kazutoshi Maeda. They arrived in Vermont fresh from closing Tsuki, a sushi spot on the upper East Side of Manhattan that New York magazine’s website rated 9 out of 10. At San Sai, sushi and sashimi options echo the creative tastes available at top spots in New York, and feature sauces and flavored salts not previously seen in Vermont. Also new to the Green Mountains is the range of izakaya-style treats.
That’s Japanese pub food, which is often dominated by kushiyaki (skewer-grilled items) and compact fried snacks. San Sai has both, and they’re inexpensive enough to make a small-plates meal for less than $30, as I did recently.
That’s when the Tamarack Hollow Farm chicken came into play. I sampled skewers of a variety of broiled yakitori chicken parts (yes, breast among them), all priced at less than $4. The tofu dengaku skewer was a meat alternative that pleased even this avowed carnivore, with a soft, somewhat cheesy texture and an addictive topping of sweet miso paste forming crispy broiled peaks.
A dish called hanamaki soba was a particularly interesting creation, fusing sushi rolls, noodles and tempura. The unique maki was filled with soba noodles and strands of seaweed. The ample pasta overhang was dipped in tempura, then fried into a cloud-like formation that floated above the nori roll. Slices of gourd (one of the wild edibles, or “san sai,” that lend the restaurant its name) surrounded the maki, and the whole thing sat in a light pool of sesame-based sauce. The dish was truly a stunner, but only a warm-up for the dinner I enjoyed at San Sai last week.
Like many of its upscale counterparts, San Sai offers an omakase, or chef’s-choice option. The diner sets the price, but from there the folks in the kitchen rule. One key difference from metropolitan restaurants was that we were able to set the price at a relatively wallet-friendly $30 per person.
Our extremely friendly and well-informed server warned that a busy Father’s Day weekend had left the kitchen somewhat picked over. (Strangely, the Boylan Bottleworks cream soda my party ordered was one of the items out of stock.) But we decided to give Russo and Maeda’s creativity a shot.
The meal began with three small plates. A cube of pork belly was braised to creamy submission in a sweet mirin-and-soy sauce. A nugget of homemade tofu was studded with mushrooms and served with ginger sauce. Perhaps most dazzling was a large round of tender daikon and three teensy French breakfast radishes, all bathed in sweet miso and poppy seeds. I had never seen anything quite like the dish before, but it felt familiar, like comfort food from another planet.
Broiled-eel-and-cucumber salad followed. The briny fish was moist and tender inside, with crisp, airy skin to rival pork rinds. Cucumbers provided a bright foil to the eel, along with a sweet and slightly tangy dressing.
If the meal had ended there, we would have left thinking we’d got our money’s worth. However, six more courses followed. First, a cylinder of salmon tartare in carrot sauce, covered in its own salty — but not fishy — roe called ikura. Mackerel in dark miso was the evening’s only disappointment. The thick sauce was heavily salted, which only enhanced the aggressively fishy flavor of the mackerel.
That overbearing taste gave way to the laser-focused power of the ume-shiso roll. For those unfamiliar with shiso, the leaf can be a revelation. The neon flavor encompasses elements of lemon, mint and sage. Wrapped around sour pickled plum and a jicama-like root, yamaimo, it packed a wallop and left me salivating even after I’d eaten all the rice- and nori-wrapped slices.
The roll provided an apt palate cleanser for what turned out to be the main event: a large plate filled with a veritable pantheon of aquatic delights. The carrot-sauced salmon returned, this time served on a slice of cucumber. So did the ikura, packed into nori over a layer of rice and dressed with a few matchsticks of cucumber. Tuna made appearances in a pleasantly chewy roll topped with ume sauce and in a nigiri-style wand of coarsely chopped tartare mixed with brilliant-yellow pickled radishes.
The clear headliner on the plate was the volcano roll. The simple, inside-out rolls were filled with meaty chunks of tuna, lubed lasciviously with rich, spicy mayonnaise and piled into a pyramid. A shower of tempura crumbs coated the outside. On top, a lava flow of ikura, tobiko and fried strands of sweet potato added crunchy, poppy texture and salty sweetness. We were so full, we almost refused the final course of green tea ice cream. The soft texture was pleasant, but the flavor was somewhat neutral.
Russo, in classic sushi-master garb, made the rounds of tables at each of my meals. Fortunately, it was sufficiently busy at dinner that he didn’t reach my table until he presented the second-to-last dish, apologizing unnecessarily for the lack of variety owing to the aforementioned low stocks.
I returned at lunchtime later in the week for a taste of some homestyle-cooked food. But first, we couldn’t resist the mystery of the sushi pizza. Apparently a Japanese-Canadian invention, the dish was simpler than it sounds. The crust was composed of a chewy round of tightly packed rice, dressed with a slathering of the same mayo as that on the volcano roll, then topped with petite cubes of salmon, tuna, yellowtail and cucumber. The overall effect was refreshing and comforting.
Before our ethereal vegetable-tempura appetizer arrived, our server brought an amuse-bouche of cooked tuna marinated in a sweet soy-ginger concoction. Though a few bites were dry, others rivaled the pork belly for lush creaminess. The dish inspired me to use more tuna in my own kitchen.
Speaking of home cooking, the special entrée that day was one of my favorites, katsu curry. While most restaurants use a packaged curry roux, the one at San Sai was clearly prepared from scratch. The brown gravy was sweet and aromatic, though I would have liked a hint more spice. Tender potatoes and carrots filled the stew, which covered a juicy but lean pork chop. My only complaint: The dish was too much for me to finish at lunch, yet not quite big enough for leftovers. That’s because San Sai has yet to roll out a lunch menu. Russo later told me that he plans to debut an express lunch soon.
The chicken teriyaki was also almost overwhelming. The enormous, grill-marked breast was presented, to our surprise, with a knife and fork to battle the beast. This seemed odd at a Japanese restaurant, but once we cut in and experienced the glorious juiciness, it made sense. Better not to release the moisture before it hit the table.
Though the dish was not the most creative or even the most delicious I tried at San Sai, it crystallized in my mind what’s so special about the little restaurant. Teriyaki can often be a sticky-sweet dish; here it was restrained and sophisticated, with just enough sugar and a robust, not-at-all-sticky sauce. A bowl of rice came on the side, and in place of the too-common frozen vegetable mix, San Sai presented two salads. A delicate nest of hijiki seaweed was layered with sesame seeds and redolent of its oil.
Even better, the shredded carrots and burdock known as kinpira gobo were the best version of the dish I’d ever had. Not only were the sweet braised vegetables exceptional, but it was exciting to know the seemingly exotic burdock had been grown two miles away.
Just as Bluebird Tavern created the Vermont gastropub, San Sai has invented Vermont Japanese cuisine. Each meal I enjoyed there was an adventure, full of surprises. Imitators may soon spring up, but unless they have Maeda and Russo’s mastery, San Sai will continue to stand alone.