by Alice Levitt
150 Dorset Street, South Burlington, 448-3525
The Blue Mall hasn't had the best luck as a culinary destination. Though Wings Over Burlington has the best tenders around, and Outback Steakhouse has a steady clientele of people I've apparently never met, restaurants such as Nothing but Noodles and Erics' Place seem to have come and gone quickly. The excellent natural foods spot, Moon Meadow Market, is long gone, and Vermont Sandwich Company has also closed.
But last month, a new hope came to the mall: Japanese food, the only such option in South Burlington besides Koto Japanese Steakhouse on Shelburne Road.
Hana's owners previously worked at Koto, and the menu is similar, with slightly lower prices at the new restaurant. Hana also boasts some new entrees you won't find at Koto, including eel don and curry chicken. But priced between $18 and $26, the specialty entrees don't fit into the Alice Eats range.
Instead, I tried a pair of lunch specials, both beginning with soup and a salad.
I've written about the very un-Japanese ginger dressing available at other eateries owned by the Jiang/Zhang family (including the Asian Bistro chain and Asian Gourmet in Barre.) The sweet, thick dressing tastes only slightly of ginger but is irresistibly creamy. I rarely feel so indulgent eating a salad of just lettuce, tomato and cucumber.
Miso soup at Hana had a fishier flavor than many of the apparently chicken-based versions I've tasted in Vermont. Beef soup, which came with the hibachi meal, was filled with tender mushrooms and tasted like beef bouillon.
Our lunch selections left enough money to try a sushi appetizer. We ordered the Luck Tree, described on the menu as "a salad of chopped spicy tuna, tempura flakes and tobiko."
With just a few lettuce leaves resting under the tuna, it was the strangest "salad" I've ever been served — except for braised lamb neck bones at Qing Hua Dumpling in Montréal.
Usually, when fish is served chopped I assume it's because that fish is poor quality. This didn't seem to be the case with the mountain of tuna in the Luck Tree. It tasted meaty and fresh, with nary a hint of past-prime fishiness, simply a lovely tartare. The purpose of the fine grind was to add the crunchy tempura flakes, a fun texture that went well with the spicy mayonnaise dressing.
But we had to save room for our main events.
Hibachi chicken with noodles was almost as addictive as the Koto version, but lacked its heartier sesame flavor.
Chicken came in crunchy little nuggets, with tender mushrooms, zucchini and onions. A pair of sauces made up for the plain, soy-based sauce in which the food was cooked. On one side, the same spicy mayo that appeared on the Luck Tree; on the other, the yummy ginger dipping sauce that comes with hibachi meals at Koto, as well.
We had hoped to make some replacements in the tonkatsu lunch box — tuna roll for California roll or gyoza for shumai — but we were told that there would be an additional charge for any substitutions, even though the items cost the same on the regular menu, a less-than-ideal setup for diners with dietary restrictions.
But at $9, the meal was a steal. The ground shrimp in the shumai was prepared in a sweet sauce, with another salty soy one that teased out additional flavor. The California rolls, usually the dried-out, pre-fab McRib of sushi, were surprisingly fresh, if still not my style.
The large portion of veggie tempura included broccoli, yam, onion and zucchini. Strangely, while some were battered to flaky perfection, other pieces had a thicker, less delicate coat of batter. We had to ask for tempura dipping sauce, but it was provided gratis.
The panko-breaded pork cutlet was pleasant. The meat was thin, leaving it a bit dry, but sweet, tangy katsu sauce helped moisten it.
Here's hoping Hana is what the Blue Mall has needed all along. With low prices and lots of variety, it could shape up to be a regular destination.
Alice Eats is a weekly blog feature devoted to reviewing restaurants where diners can get a meal for two for less than $35. Got a restaurant you'd love to see featured? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.