The new kid on the block … but do they have the right stuff?
By Tom Baker
Sa-Bai is the newest of the Thai/sushi joints in town, opened in July in the lease-challenged downtown space that formerly housed Chin’s and Elbo’s. Owned and operated by the same group as Teak Thai and The Celestial in Cincinnati’s Mt. Adams neighborhood, Sa-Bai brings a mix of casual and upscale Asian dining just a block or two away from Thai 9, in what appears to be a direct challenge to Dayton’s most popular Thai destination.
Inside, Sa-Bai is tastefully and minimally decorated with two proper seating areas in addition to a bar/lounge section with high-top tables. Outside, they offer a spacious patio dotted with tall poles of bamboo. But only a few of the tables offer umbrellas, so any sprinkles or hot sun could put a damper on dining al fresco when busy. One thing I noticed right away was the music, a contemporary and hip blend of indie rock and electronica during the day, as well as classic and contemporary jazz in the evening. The music suited the space and shifts well, and was also available on the patio.
Service was prompt, attentive and friendly at both lunch and dinner, although as in many restaurants I frequent, bar menu/wine list knowledge was limited. For our dinner visit, this resulted in receiving what appeared to be a cranberry and vodka instead of a glass of Gewurztraminer — big difference. Further, this was an almost 20-minute transaction which certainly puts a damper on things when we were looking for a cool and slightly sweet complement to our spicy fare. Sa-Bai features a full bar with a sufficient wine list for their menu and a wide range of varietals, as well as sake and plum wine.
Food was consistently good between lunch, dinner and carryout, with only a few misses, mostly on appetizers or items accompanying them. The lunch menu pricing ranges from $7 to $14 and dinner from $10 to $18, and are average to above average for the Dayton market. Both lunch and dinner menus offer requisite Thai dishes such as Holy Basil stir fry, Pad Thai, Curries and Thai-Style Fried Rice, but also sushi and more upscale dishes in the evening such as Thai takes on Osso Buco, Grilled Sirloin, Duck and Red Snapper. Noticeably absent, however, were the many other noodle dishes typically available in Thai restaurants such as Pad See Ew and Lad Na.
On separate visits we tried the Crab Sticks, Mango Salad and Fresh Roll (soft roll) appetizers, as well as the Shrimp Tempura Roll – results were mixed. The Crab Sticks, suspiciously similar to those offered by Bahn Mai in Centerville, were disappointing. Lacking flavor, the crab was noticeably absent in all but one, and the sweet sauce lacked dimension, offering only sugar. The Fresh Rolls, Sa-Bai’s soft rolls, were good, and included pork instead of tofu. Again, the sauce accompanying the rolls was far too sweet. The Shrimp Tempura Roll, in contrast, was very good and artfully presented down to the wasabi pumpkin. Finally, the Mango Salad, our favorite of the appetizers, was light, fresh and tasty with slivers of fresh mango, wok-roasted whole cashews and red onion.
Entrées, on the other hand, were consistently good, although exercise caution with spice levels (0-10, and starting at 3 for curries) as they seem to gain momentum more quickly than others. The Massaman Curry, a satisfying, peanut-rich stew of potatoes, carrot, onion and your choice of protein, was ordered at a modest spice level 4, but actually made me sweat. The Thai-Style Fried Rice with shrimp was a winner with great flavor, perfect seasoning, perfectly cooked shrimp, onion, scallion, fresh tomato and cilantro garnish. It could have used a bit more vegetable, but was very satisfying for a quick lunch with a Thai Iced Tea. At dinner the Holy Basil stir-fry and Pad Thai were both very good. The stir-fry of mushrooms, onions, carrots and pea pods features the signature licorice-infused Thai basil. The Pad Thai is a slightly different version than others, with more sweetness that appears to come from a more tamarind-heavy recipe. Nonetheless, it was still very good and a fitting counterpoint to the stir-fry.
All of this being said, there can be no ignoring the elephant in the room (or in this case, down the street). Sa-Bai is going to have to bring out their big guns and A-game in order to survive and thrive in the shadow, almost quite literally, of Thai 9. Only time will tell, and Sa-Bai certainly shows promise, but it’s going to take a little work to smooth the rough edges and take Sa-Bai from new kid on the block to downtown Dayton fixture.
Sa-Bai is located at 200 S. Jefferson St. in downtown Dayton and is open seven days a week. Call (937) 535-2900 for more information.
Reach DCP food critic Tom Baker at TomBaker@DaytonCityPaper.com.