When you go to SAIA, do yourself a favor and accept the waiter's suggestion to enjoy the tamari scallops. The three standing ruby-pink bundles resemble stocky skiers ready to slalom down snow-covered hills of wasabi aioli. On each bite, the exterior jacket of tuna sashimi swaddles a spicy scallop-and-crabmeat mixture, then is accessorized with a winter hat of emerald-green tobiko caviar.
Once the package is plopped in your mouth, the clean finish of tuna soon fades away on your tongue like a cold snowflake, revealing the complexity inside. A brief and subtle tang of tamari gives way to spice and ocean brine. A nibble or two later, explosions of caviar begin to pop in your mouth, signaling a climactic grand finale to the delicious noshing. Freaking orgasmic.
Caveat: The dishes at SAIA are designed to be shared — but you may not want to divvy up a plate such as this. When the finicky diner in my party impulsively scooped one of the tamari scallops only to wince at the texture of raw fish and waste it, I contemplated smacking her forehead with my chopstick for robbing me of an additional bite.
The menu by chef Subin Chankesorn features savory Asian dishes as well as inventive rolls and quality sashimi. Inspired by his travels, the chef created small plates embracing the flavors of Thailand and the Caribbean islands. Prime example: the Thai curry lobster ($25) — a succulent tail merrily wading in a pool of chili-spiced coconut milk, dotted with chunks of sweet pineapple. Differing flavors of sweet and spice resolve on your tongue like reconciling lovers after a silly quarrel.
Chankesorn has kept the menu to just one page, with only strong and inventive dishes making the cut. I'm convinced you could run your finger blindly along the center of the premium card stock, order at random, and be pleased with the result.
SAIA is located on oceanfront property at Sunrise Boulevard and A1A (hence the name SAIA) inside the former Holiday Inn, which has been rechristened as the B Ocean Fort Lauderdale, the first in an envisioned chain of B brand hotels (additional locations to be announced soon, say corporate execs). With a remodeling, the new hotel has shed the Holiday Inn funk for a swankier, South Beachesque style that still gibes with Fort Lauderdale's relaxed attitude. The hotel lobby includes its own light production, with shifting-color neon lights pulsing across a wave-textured wall. Yet despite the chic vibe, both the hotel and the restaurant escape pretentiousness, thanks in large part to a refreshingly approachable staff. No velvet ropes at the doors, no divas at the front desk; even the Tommy Bahama-clad locals would feel comfortable here. (If they do come by, that is; some nearby residents have been grumbling that they can no longer claim free parking from the lot behind the hotel.)
Although a few of B Ocean's early hotel guests have shared complaints online (some say the swimming pool is too small for a 240-room hotel), SAIA has a stylish, modern look, with stark white walls and ocean views through the floor-to-ceiling windows (although the restaurant is on the ground floor, and there's a stretch of road in between the building and the beach). On a Saturday evening, one week prior to the grand opening, it was not quite full — suggesting that diners are still unaware that the restaurant exists or is open for business. The small dinner crowd included the usual Florida collection of retirees with designer handbags and tourists with collared shirts and shorts.
Once my friends and I were seated at a table with cushioned black leather benches beneath lighting spheres dangling from the ceiling by long filaments, our gregarious waiter rattled off nuances of the menu. With genuine excitement, he described his favorite dishes and listed the ingredients in detail. From a long list of inventive cocktails, he suggested the bipolar cocktail ($14), which includes absinthe and promises a mild altered state.
He continued with a presentation about the ice at the restaurant — yep, the ice. SAIA has invested in Japanese copper molders, special instruments that create slow-melting ice cubes for cocktails. If you order an after-dinner cordial, you can watch your server create a perfectly sculpted ice sphere from the device. Because the ice is so dense, with a two-inch circumference, it chills a drink without watering it down.
Over at the marble sushi bar, which was glowing with soft white light reflected from iridescent mother-of-pearl tiles on the wall, drinkers perched on leather stools. Guests who sit here can sip Asian soju — a distilled beverage similar to vodka — while watching chefs create their artful dishes with quiet determination at the teppan grill. Try the fire soju martini ($12) infused with jalapeño and agave. Two seconds after swallowing the cool cocktail, the warm spice of the pepper registers in the lower portion of your throat.
Back at our table, we ordered the least expensive bottle of sake ($28), but the real fun began when the waiter gave us our choice of cups, as though we were at a dainty tea party. Some picked colorful ceramic cylinders; others, the masu — a traditional wooden sake cup. Smooth and refreshing with notes of fruit, the sake soon calmed the spicy zest of dishes like the shirome spice ($14), lightly fried white fish medallions glazed with a sweet and spicy chili-garlic sauce.
Although SAIA is by no means cheap, a party of two could dine for less than $60 with a hearty sushi roll and three small plates. I'd recommend the previously exalted tamari scallops ($14), paired with the fire dragon roll ($18) — packed with shrimp tempura, avocado, and snow crab, then topped with spicy tuna and masago. SAIA's version of a ceviche is found in the tangy fish — a medley of tuna, hamachi, and salmon tossed in ginger, orange, and lime and assembled into a tower of mixed greens ($10). Don't miss the lime- and salt-crusted scallops, which are succulent and sweetened with honey miso sauce on Japanese sweet potato ($14).
It was difficult to find a creation that didn't work at SAIA. The Wagyu beef ($29), topped with a shiitake-shimiji mushroom mixture, was mildly unsatisfying because the meat was a bit chewy. Presented atop a simple charred pepper, the beef is pricey — $6 a mouthful. And the hamachi dish ($12) proved unimaginative compared to other dishes; slivers of sashimi were topped with a single slice of raw jalapeño in a chintzy portion of orange-ponzu sauce.
You could joyously end your meal with the tropical roll ($18) — seared juicy scallop, mushroom, shiso, and cucumber, topped with salmon and paper-thin mango. But then you would have to pass on decadent desserts like the banana tempura (crispy fried banana slices beside a bowl of coconut ice cream), creamy crème brûlée (which veers from the traditional with hints of lemongrass and mango), or the green tea ice cream with raspberry sauce and fresh berries.
The masses haven't found this place yet, but if the quality and service keeps up, it won't be long until they're coming in droves. As you sip on an after-dinner cordial served over a slow-melting rounded ice sphere, you'll forget what the place was once before. Holiday Inn, what?