San Sai (Burlington, VT)

After the first evening of the Vermont Brewers Festival, it was time for us to seek out a a light dinner. Being a Friday night, that’s usually a little hard in Burlington, but as we exited the festival, I was reminded that one place on my hit list was literally right there. Adjacent to the exit of the festival was San Sai, a relatively new Japanese place in Burlington.

Located at 112 Lake Street (in what I still think of as the “New Condo building down by the lake”, even though it’s been there for a few years), San Sai is located in what used to be the location of Taste, right off of the waterfront. It’s actually a great location for a restaurant, except for the fact that people don’t expect a restaurant to be there. If I hadn’t known to look for San Sai, I probably could walk by it a dozen times without noticing it. And it’s not just me, since we walked into San Sai at 9pm, right after the Friday Vermont Brewers Festival, and got promptly seated. Let me tell you, if we had tried to go to Flatbread or Farm House, for example, we’d be waiting until rather late to get a seat. But San Sai had a reasonably good number of tables open.

San Sai is basically trying to do two things: bring a slightly higher level of sushi to the Burlington area, and partner with some local farmers to bring good products to the plate. The result is a fairly traditional Japanese restuarant, with a few local items on the menu.

Starting off, I opted for an appetizer that I couldn’t resist: braised pork belly. This came out as a nice slab of pork belly braised in a sweet mirin-and-soy sauce. This was a perfectly braised piece of belly, with nice pork notes, just a bit of crispiness to the skin, and fat that was just starting to melt into the meat. While a bit small for the price, this was an excellently done little appetizer, and I was quite pleased by it.

Carol opted for a more substantial dish: a seared yellowtail collar. While a little fishier than I generally like things, this was a nicely done dish: the yellowtail had a nice sear to it, but none of the fish itself was overcooked; it was nicely light and flaky throughout. Served up with a nice sauce, this dish took a bit of work to eat, but was pleasant throughout.

Then, my Special Sushi Sampler came out, and any doubts I had were erased. This was probably the best overall sushi sampler I’ve had since Sushi Ran in Sausalito a few years ago.

Every item in this dish was a perfectly done little bite of sushi, with one item (Hon-Hamachi Ume Shiso: tuna with shiso) being a standout of what I expect a good sushi item to be. Sadly, I’m not sure what all the items on my platter were, since the waitress didn’t give me a run-down.

Which brings me to my next point: San Sai could use a bit of an improvement to their service. After showing up, they asked if we wanted inside or outside seating, and after seating us outside, promptly forgot about us. For about 20 minutes. Eventually, one of the servers asked, “Hey, has anyone come by to take care of you?” At which point our waiter came out, and service was good the rest of the evening. And throughout the rest of the meal, there was little followup, and in the case of the otherwise-wonderful sushi sampler I had, there was almost no explanation of what I was eating.

So San Sai is a bit of a mixed result. Our food was wonderful, but between the prices and the lackluster service, I’m not really blown out of the water. This place has the potential for greatness, but still needs a bit of work to get there.

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