Local haunt serves up Japanese and Korean favorites
By Paula Johnson
Photo: Dolsot Bibimbap from Saya Korean and Japanese Restaurant
If it’s 7 p.m. on a Saturday night and there’s barely anyone in the place, should you stay? Is it fair to judge a restaurant by the number of patrons? As almost any national chain proves, the answer is, “No.”
Just because a place is mobbed does not mean it’s worth your dining dollars. Other factors should apply, and they do in the case of Saya Korean and Japanese Restaurant. Its location in Fairborn across from the Air Force Base means it gets a lot of lunch patronage, but not nearly as much dinner traffic.
Upon entering the small, informal dining room, we found only one other table occupied. However, in trying to assess a restaurant’s service and how others are enjoying their selections, this can be an advantage.
During our visit this past Saturday, we were able to observe a couple that was clearly enjoying their sushi meal as they continued to check off new orders with the pencil and list provided. Another patron – obviously a regular – sidled into a booth without waiting for the hostess and began ticking off his choices.
Saya offers both Korean and Japanese cuisine. My dining companion, PIP (Palate In Progress), did not have great expectations for the Korean side of the menu, owing to a recent bad Korean BBQ experience – thankfully, not in Dayton.
He opted to stay with Japanese, while I happily chose the Korean. We began with a small sampling of sushi – yellowtail ($4.50) and salmon ($4.95). Reasonably priced at two pieces per order, we found it soft and mild, overall fine.
PIP went for the Tuna Tataki appetizer ($8.95), described as charbroiled slices with chef’s sauce. While beautifully presented, the watery texture and overly chilled temperature prevented the taste of the fish from emerging. Of the Korean appetizers listed, the most interesting were the pancakes, one featuring seafood and the other kimchi ($10.95 each). Hae Mool Pa Jeon, the seafood pancake arrived pizza-sized and sliced in wedges. Pleasantly spongy, the eggy disk was filled with chunks of peppers, shredded carrots, onions, zucchini, squid and shrimp. Soy dipping sauce provided the necessary salty counterpoint to balance the mildness of the pancake’s flavors. The size of the portion made it impossible to finish with an entrée coming.
“This is no problem!” our server, who turned out to be the owner, excitedly announced. “It is better the next day heated it in a dry pan. It gets crispy on the bottom and makes a good breakfast!”
Animated and voluble, she provided advice and background for what we were eating, going so far as to apply a liberal dose of gochoojang – or Korean ketchup – to my Dolsot Bibimbap. She really wanted to make sure we were getting the most out of our experience. The gochoojang was spicy, thick and peppery, with savory molasses notes.
Though Saya makes its own, the owner presented us with a note for two recommended brands available at the Korean grocery next door, and advised us on how to use them at home.
Bibimbap and Bulgogi are two classics in Korean cuisine. Bulgogi, marinated grilled beef slices, is part of a conglomeration of ingredients which make up a typical Bibimbap. Shiitake mushrooms, carrots, onion, spinach and gosaki – dried fiddlehead stems – are served in a bowl over rice and topped with a fried egg. Bowls of kimchi round out the dish. Two versions of Bibimbap are available at $14.95. I’d recommend the Dolsot baked in a clay pot. The bonus is a crunchy chewy rice layer as well as the fluffy rice. I’ve sampled this dish before with the fried egg being less cooked than Saya’s version and I think I prefer being able to mix the yolk in with the ingredients. PIP, on the other hand, is not a fan of a fried egg on anything. Consequently, he had no objections to the egg’s doneness. And in a triumph over his less than great expectations, PIP ended up preferring the Bibimbap to his dish, the Japanese Katsu Don.
As the Katsu Don was quite well done, that was a surprise. A large cutlet of pork pounded thin, battered and fried arrived on a plate with fresh fruit and white rice on the side. Tender, not greasy, and glazed with a sweet sauce with notes of star anise, Saya’s Katsu Don, at $14.95, was just as it should be. Other typical Japanese offerings include teriyaki, udon and yakisoba, and range in price from $10.95 to $14.95.
The sushi menu spans smaller dinners beginning at $15.95 to large boats from $49.95 to $80.00. A large selection of rolls, vegetarian and non, are also on the menu.
We asked the owner about her favorites, and she immediately said, “Kal Bi! It’s marinated short ribs, and Chicken with Spicy Sauce.”
Saya was formerly open seven days a week but is now closed Sundays. As the owner noted, “Unless I can be here I can’t be sure that everything is perfect.” A restaurant owner who pays attention to quality of ingredients, and works hard to ensure diners are comfortable and informed about the cuisine deserves to be patronized.
Stick with a place like Saya. Perhaps their next problem will be turning people away.
Saya Korean and Japanese Restaurant is located at 1030 Kauffman Ave. in Fairborn. For more information, please call 937.8799700 or visit sayaoh.com.
Reach DCP freelance writer Paula Johnson at PaulaJohnson@DaytonCityPaper.com.