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Side Dishes: San Sai Japanese restaurant coming to Burlington


Published April 26, 2011 at 6:06 p.m.

Since Taste closed at 112 Lake Street in Burlington in 2009, the prime restaurant real estate has remained vacant. Until now. On May 5, a Japanese restaurant called San Sai will open its doors.

According to co-owner Chris Russo, in modern Japanese san sai refers to produce grown in the mountains. In an older version of the language, he says, it means “foraged edible.” Both meanings seem appropriate for the restaurant’s business model.

Though Russo remains tightlipped on the identity of his business partner, the Vermont Secretary of State’s office confirms that it is Kazutoshi Maeda, a Japanese native who has been chef and owner at New York City restaurants for the past 35 years. In 2001, he opened Tsuki, a beloved midtown sushi spot, but he will come to Vermont to open San Sai. Says Russo, “My business partner, he’s the head, I’m the arm.” The “head” will train the “arm” to take over the role of head chef eventually, he adds.

Maeda’s experience aside, don’t expect sushi to be one of the major attractions at San Sai. “Up until recent times in Japan, sushi was a treat, not everyday food,” Russo explains. Instead, the focus will be on handmade dishes crafted from local products. “It’s big for this area, but that’s how most people eat in Japan,” says Russo of the localvore trend. “Their cuisine is based on local, seasonal ingredients.”

Russo has partnered with Tamarack Hollow Farm, where Amanda Andrews is growing a laundry list of Japanese fruits and vegetables specifically for San Sai. Burdock and bitter melon are in the ground, as are shiso and Japanese varieties of turnips, gourds and cucumbers.

Tamarack Hollow will also supply chickens, which Russo will use for yakitori. “We will be using about every part,” he says of the traditional skewered fowl. “Chicken heart, cartilage, tendons … and not just chicken; there’ll be pork, beef and vegetables, too.”

At San Sai, Russo says, vegetarian fare will be far from an afterthought. Tofu will be made in-house and used in cold dishes this summer and hot pots in the cold months, when Japanese curries are also likely to grace the menu.