Reincarnation offers forward movement, and the recent rebirth of the former Sunny Gardens on Farber Road heralds a great step forward in Asian fusion food in the Princeton area. The completely redecorated space is warm and inviting, quietly elegant in deep carnelian and browns. The dividers are back-lit panels of cutout floral motifs and lend a serene backdrop to the dining rooms. The beloved sushi bar is still there, actively staffed by three chefs the night my friend and I dined. Desperately seeking an antidote to having overstuffed ourselves on turkey and the trimmings, the Peony Pavilion offered the perfect counterpoint: light but filling. The decor is enhanced by banks of pictures of performances of the play from which the venue takes its name. The New York sensibility of the new owner is very much in evidence.
We arrived at 5 p.m. on a Sunday. While it was quiet, we were not the only diners at that time, and the tables were filling fast when we left a little over an hour later. The menu is extensive but not so large as to look like it tries to be all things. The single aim here is to present elegantly plated dishes that are creative. The fusion element is clear from the start when you see tuna pizza with guacamole ($13) and curry butternut squash soup ($6) among the starters.
I had the Tom Yum soup ($6) which has a rich, dark fish broth, so much more robust than the usual version. It is spicy but on the moderate side and does not sacrifice flavor for heat. My friend had the eggplant tofu ($8). Unlike fried tofu that has a thick coating, this had a light crispness, a melt-in-your-mouth feel. Tables around us had the Thai lettuce wraps ($10) and the baby back ribs ($9), all of which could easily be a second course themselves.
We moved on to Pad Thai ($13) and the sushi sampler ($18). The sampler is distinguished by the rich lobster roll and a side of sweet crab and rice. The Pad Thai was light and the portion enough to share with a bit left over for lunch the next day. The centerpiece of the menu is the Omakase, a chef’s choice of eight courses at $70 per person. Also on the list for next time are the various specialty rolls, such as the Angry Dragon, which boasts an intriguing spicy king crab, orange edamame, and eel sauce. We ended the meal sharing the tempura ice cream and again the deft touch with the coating was evident. The presentation was a treat in itself as it arrived flaming at the table with a deep, rich chocolate sauce and the charming surprise of lime coulis rather than the ubiquitous raspberry.
The main dining room has both deep roomy booths and well-spaced tables. As the room filled, it did not get noisy, and the background music was jazz that did not intrude. Perhaps the crowning delight was that there was no television intruding into any sightline; blessed relief that enhances the intention that this is a venue where you can relax and enjoy the company of your companions.
There are private rooms available, and the night we were there a large family group was having a holiday gathering, with no intrusion to the other diners at all. Children accustomed to dining out would find welcome and much on the menu to enjoy. This is a perfect date venue, classy but not stuffy, and it would also provide an excellent spot for a business meal.
The mix on the menu makes this a destination for friends of all tastes, even if sushi is not their thing. Plenty of offerings such as grilled chicken ($20) and sea bass ($26) or ribeye ($25) are available. The staff is attentive and, given that they had been open only a few weeks when we dined, the service was, overall, well done.
Many of the diners on that Sunday night had been regulars at Sunny Garden and were clearly pleased to see the venue reborn. But the real test of its success may be if it can curry the favor of native Chinese and Japanese diners, the way the owner’s Szechuan Garden in Hamilton already has.
Peony Pavilion, 15 Farber Road, Princeton. 609-580-1850. www.peonypavilionprinceton.com.