An interviewer meeting Lisa Shao for the first time might expect that the conversation would center on the two area restaurants this 44-year-old West Windsor entrepreneur owns and runs. After all, Szechuan House in Hamilton, which she took over in 2010, remains a local favorite for its traditional fare of that Chinese province. Her newest venture — the modern, fine-dining, Asian-fusion Peony Pavilion — opened on Farber Road in West Windsor late in 2013, and has maintained an impressive rating on Yelp of between four and five stars (five being the top allotted). U.S. 1’s E.E. Whiting termed Peony Pavilion “a great step forward in Asian fusion food in the Princeton area” (December 11, 2013).
But what Shao really wants to talk about when we meet over lunch at Szechuan House is her passion for promoting (and participating in) Chinese cultural arts. These include both the fine and performing arts, and her devotion is prominently on display at Peony Pavilion, which she named after China’s most famous opera. Throughout that restaurant hangs Shao’s personal collection of 200-plus photos, paintings, and other artwork relating to that 16th-century opera and love story.
Shao invested $2.5 million to renovate and redecorate the sprawling multi-room space that had for many years been the popular Chinese restaurant Sunny Garden. The made-over spaces seat about 200 and feature high-end elements that marry traditional Eastern and modern Western design. Ornate carved wood screens — some of stylized peonies, some backlit with colored lights — coexist with uber-trendy ash gray wood plank floors; a long, sleek sushi bar; cushy black leather chairs; roomy booths upholstered in modern beige floral; and tables set with black linens and contemporary white porcelain. All are offset by red pendant lights.
The focal piece of a private meeting/party room is a strikingly modern 1,000-piece crystal chandelier (painstakingly assembled by Shao and her teenage daughter). The room also features state-of-the-art video and conferencing equipment. But to Shao, these dramatic changes merely serve as a backdrop to her impressive collection of opera wall art.
Shao says she first became enamored of the Farber Road space in its Sunny Garden days. “Before it closed down,” she says, “the owner came to see me at Szechuan House, and we talked about working together, going into a partnership there. Even then I loved the structure, the layout, the big windows.” But a deal was never struck. After Sunny Garden closed and the property came on the market, Shao looked into it. “It was a good deal, and I realized I could have it my own way, incorporate my own ideas,” she says. Shao closed on the deal in spring, 2013, and by the middle of November the new restaurant was in operation. “We didn’t tear down any walls or change the footprint,” she says. “What changed were the mood and the lighting. I wanted customers to feel that this was a totally new restaurant.”
Shao modeled Peony Pavilion’s Asian fusion offerings on those she admired in New York restaurants. “During the period leading up to Peony, I often went to New York to eat, and I saw how popular Asian fusion — Asian ingredients with French influence — is there. I realized that such a restaurant must have good food, of course, but also a beautiful space and equally beautiful presentation.” Shao said she didn’t find any such restaurants in Princeton and concluded that she could draw in the area’s many residents who commute to New York (and dine there), as well as the foodies who go into the city to dine on weekends. “The Princeton area has highly educated people who appreciate quality food and ambiance,” she says.
Peony Pavilion’s menu is divided among sushi and sashimi, cooked Japanese dishes (tempura, teriyaki, rice, and noodle entrees), forays into other Asian cuisines (gyoza, pad Thai, and Szechuan lamb, for example), and French-inflected fusion dishes. Typical of this last — and representative of the restaurant’s big-city style — is one of its most popular entrees: miso-glazed Chilean sea bass. It’s served with cinnamon-scented Korean black rice and a mix of sauteed vegetables, such as bok choy, Brussels sprouts, and carrots. The plate is finished with swooshes of bright green herb oil and mahogany-colored hoisin reduction. In February, Peony Pavilion added weekend dim sum to the mix. In keeping with its fine-dining bent, selections here come artistically plated rather than on roving carts.
Customers, Shao says, are starting to recognize that the space is “no longer a Chinese restaurant. We’re getting regular customers. One person who came during our opening days is now here once a week, every week! During the holidays, we had lines out the door, despite the bad weather.” Most gratifying to her is that the party rooms are really starting to take off. (In addition to the conference-ready room, one of the standalone dining rooms is suitable for private affairs.) “Last Saturday we had two parties,” she says. “And growing lists of clients are beginning to realize that we have the best sushi in the area.”
Sushi is the provenance of master sushi chef Yoshi, who worked at Sakura of Japan in New York. Like almost everyone Lisa Shao brings into her endeavors — even the interior designer who brought her ideas for Peony Pavilion to fruition — she connected first with the chef’s artistic side. “Yoshi is a violin player and sings as well. That’s why he’s so good at producing beautiful, artistic sushi,” she says. It is also why he shines at omekase — letting the sushi chef choose. Shao, who studied traditional Chinese dance from childhood through college and who still performs regularly, was particularly tickled when renowned Chinese violinist Chunyun Li dined at Peony Pavilion after a recent performance at Richardson Auditorium on the Princeton University campus.
Lisa Shao was born in Szechuan province in China, the daughter of an engineer and a teacher, both now retired. Her only sibling, a homemaker who lives in North Carolina, was a schoolteacher in Singapore until she moved to the U.S. Lisa Shao met her husband, David Hu, at Sichuan University, where both earned bachelor’s degrees in computer science, she in 1990. “After many years working in China,” she says, “my husband got the opportunity to study for his master’s degree at the University of Cincinnati.” So the family, which by this time included baby daughter Lucy, came to the U.S.
A year later Hu graduated and both he and Lisa found positions with Computer Associates in Cincinnati. “At the time, the computer industry was booming so I was able to get a job even before I had a master’s,” Shao says. Eventually the couple accepted a transfer to the company’s branch on Long Island, and that’s where their son Michael was born. Not long after, Shao returned to China for six months to earn a master’s degree in marketing.
In total, Shao worked at Computer Associates for more than five years, and her husband a few years beyond that. She remains grateful that the company underwrote her studies at Dowling College on Long Island, where she earned an MBA. “I worked during the day and took classes and studied nights and weekends,” she says. The company’s excellent onsite day-care facility helped make this possible as well.
Yet all during this time, Shao longed to work in the art world. While studying for her master’s in China, she become enamored of the silk embroidery artwork of Wenxia Gu, an acknowledged grand master whose rare double-sided work hangs in China’s imperial palace museum. Shao visited the artist and decided she wanted to promote her work in the U.S. Through Shao’s efforts, Wenxia Gu’s embroideries were displayed at the Jimmy Carter Library and Museum in Atlanta in 2005.
By 2006, Shao had left Computer Associates, and Hu was transferred from Cincinnati to New York. She took a consulting job as IT project manager with Johnson & Johnson in Bridgewater, and the family moved to West Windsor. For a while Hu was the principal of the Huaxia Chinese School at Plainsboro. These days he is a team leader for the Happy Singers Chorus of Princeton, which will have its next performance of Chinese songs in Philadelphia in May.
In addition to running two restaurants, Lisa Shao is a dancer with, and does promotion for, the Lanyun Dance Troupe of Plainsboro, which has performed at McCarter Theater and New Brunswick’s State Theater. In the Shao-Hu home, the entire family enjoys singing. This includes son Michael, now a seventh grader at Grover Middle School, and daughter Lucy, a senior at West Windsor-Plainsboro High School South who is headed to the University of Maryland to study business and marketing. Peony Pavilion is participating in this year’s post prom party at her high school.
When, after four or five years, Shao’s consulting contract with J&J ended, her next move was acquiring Szechuan House and becoming a restaurateur. “I was already a customer and friends with the owner,” she explains. “She has another restaurant too and told me she wanted to sell so she could spend more time with her family. So I thought, ‘Why not? I’m from Szechuan and the food here is good, it has a regular customer base, and the restaurant isn’t far from my house.’ I discussed it with my husband and we decided to go for it.”
Unlike what she would subsequently do with the old Sunny Garden, here Shao didn’t make big changes to either the traditional Chinese-restaurant decor or the sprawling menu, which runs the gamut from American favorites like General Tso’s chicken, moo shu pork, beef with broccoli, pepper steak, and kung pao shrimp to “chef’s special” items such as whole fish with bean paste, Peking duck, and tea-smoked duck. There is an entire section of “Szechuan delicacies” that features spicy pork kidney, Szechuan pepper with pork intestine, duck tongue in “house special,” and sea cucumber in home-style sauce. Shao’s favorite dish at her Chinese restaurant is steamed dumplings in spicy chili vinaigrette.
Shao laughs when she says how she is logging serious mileage driving between her restaurants every day, where she has full time staffs of 30 — 20 at Peony and 10 at Szechuan House (which seats 170).
Shao is a member of the Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce, which this August will hold its monthly Business After Business event at Peony Pavilion. She believes in giving back to the community. Earlier this year Peony Pavilion was one of several area restaurants to participate in the annual fundraising gala of the Princeton Education Foundation (“We were the only restaurant with two tables of food,” she says). Earlier in April Shao organized a ballroom dance social at the West Windsor Arts Center and is planning additional events at that venue. “I really want to promote this beautiful space,” she explains.
Right now, though, she’s mainly focusing her attention on Peony Pavilion. “I want to make sure it comes up to and maintains the level I’m after. I really want to bring Peony more recognition. There are no really notable fine-dining Asian restaurants in Princeton — or even New Jersey! I feel that the Princeton community especially will appreciate it and recognize that our prices are really fair based on the quality.”
Shao also wants to get her hands on a liquor license, which Peony Pavilion lacks. Currently the restaurant sells wines from New Jersey’s award-winning Alba Vineyards, and patrons are also welcome to bring their own. “But I want to have a restaurant with a full bar,” Shao says. “You know, we have a big space at Peony and, in order to maintain the quality, operational costs are high. It helps if you have a liquor license, which serves to extend your prime dining hours. Take P.F. Chang’s, for example. Their food cannot compare to ours, but they have a liquor license, and that makes a big difference.” Guests, especially in a fine-dining venue, want to enjoy a cocktail and to linger over their meal. (Not to mention have access to a curated list of wines and sakes.) If she cannot find a liquor license for Peony, Shao will begin looking to purchase a third restaurant — one that comes with one and is transferable.
In the meantime, it comes as no surprise that plans are in the works for music nights at Peony Pavilion, and Shao is thinking of adding the occasional afternoon tea in conjunction with activities like flower arranging and lectures on Chinese art and culture.
Peony Pavilion, 15 Farber Road, West Windsor. Monday to Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday noon to 10 p.m. 609-580-1850. www.peonypavilionprinceton.com.
Szechuan House, 2022 Nottingham Way, Hamilton. Monday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday noon to 10 p.m. 609-890-7600.