Keep a sharp eye out for the strikingly colorful advertising graphics featuring a smiling cherry tree and be ready for the newest addition to the dining corridor on Route 1 South. Located where the old Sunny Garden resided, Hanami opened its doors in the dark days of December, only days before my friend and I arrived to try the sushi and unusual specialties of the house.
While the layout is recognizable, the decor is warm cinnamon and paprika-colored walls accented by rich cherry wood. The main dining room is more formal than before and the side room is nicely appointed with tablecloths. The private party room is still available and come warm weather the outside garden area will be open.
The overall sense of Hanami suggests a special night out but my friend was overdressed in a shirt and sweater. This is no fault of the inviting atmosphere of the restaurant but rather of the male component of the dining public that persists in thinking that blue jeans and baseball caps, lumberjack shirts, and sneakers are considered dressy enough. But don’t let this dissuade you from enjoying the pleasant ambiance and courteous staff.
The hostess calls “welcome” to the sushi chefs as she passes by, showing new patrons to their table. The chefs each echo the greeting to one and all. The chefs are situated so that they can be the entertainment of the evening even to those not seated at the bar. Hanami’s culinary coup was luring the sushi chef, who held forth at both Megu and Nobu in Manhattan, to settle here in Princeton. The different specialties are clearly a reflection of this urban influence. Foie Gras Fried Rice ($18) and Wood Chip Grilled Beef Tenderloin with caramelized baby veggies ($26) vie with Prawns with X. O. Sauce, dried scallops and cured ham ($20). Peking duck ($19 for half, $38 for whole) is available without pre-ordering but do allow 15 minutes more for preparation.
Among the starters the “Best Wonton Soup” ($5 for a small bowl) is a treat, having shrimp stuffed wontons. Salads range from a simple mesclun salad ($6) to duck confit with wasabi yuzu dressing ($15). Dim Sum includes chicken lettuce wraps ($9) and BBQ baby back ribs ($12).
The hot appetizers could easily make a nice combination meal with such unusual pairings as Japanese eggplant with sweet miso sauce and crispy shredded potatoes ($8) or the sushi pizza of rice tempura, tuna, salmon, shredded sugar snap peas and shiitakes ($13).
All the regular sushi favorites are available, one piece per serving, and range from tuna at $3 to Osetra caviar at $7 and lobster or sea urchin at market price. Luncheon specials are $10 with either soup, salad or spring roll. Sushi or sashimi platters are $18.
If you are willing to shake up your routine, be sure to let the chef prepare a multi-course tasting. When coming back a second time, let him know and he will create a whole new set of dishes to try out.
Families are welcome and the kids are even treated to a cotton candy machine, a real honest reminder of the freshly spun confection, rather than the hothouse variety in a plastic bag that now is offered “down the shore.” And speaking of desserts, the menu is being enhanced but for now there is a Nutella creme brulee and a special green tea crepe cake to go with cheesecake and chocolate mousse cake.
We arrived before 7 p.m. on the Saturday after Christmas and the place was in constant motion. The noise level was very moderate and my friend and I were able to have a nice conversation without having to resort to semaphores. And most mercifully of all, the main dining room was not dominated by flat screen televisions that force sports into your face. There is one screen, in the sushi bar, that is tuned to the Food Network: Why restaurants feel obliged to force diners to watch TV has long been a mystery to me but maybe people don’t have much to say to each other anymore.
Hanami is a lovely destination for an office meal with the big boss or for a nice night out with your sweetheart or friends. And while I can’t speak for the men’s room, the ladies’ has the nicest bowl sinks with painted gold fish swimming among cherry blossoms, an unexpected visual treat.
Welcome then to the cherry tree girl on Farber Road, a breath of fresh air with some surprises in store.
Hanami, 15 Farber Road, Princeton. 609-520-1880. Lunch daily 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; lunch specials Monday through Friday. Dinner Sunday through Thursday, 5 to 9:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday til 10:30 p.m. www.HanamiPrinceton.com.
Sushi Lovers Alert: Sunny Garden alumni and siblings Michael and Carrie Chang are planning to open another sushi restaurant, MoC MoC Sushi, in the heart of Princeton, at 14 South Tulane Street, around the corner from Sotto and Triumph Brewery.