Mythology tells us that it is the phoenix that is reborn resplendent but we now know that the peacock comes back shining anew as well. The Peacock Inn at 20 Bayard Lane inaugurated its renovated restaurant last week, and my friend and I made reservations for dinner on Saturday.
We had seen the restored dining rooms when we had toured the hotel and bar portion of the elegant old home earlier this year. The decor is in keeping with the sophisticated lines of the building with sweeping moldings, subdued lighting, and colors from a rich cafe au lait and mulberry palette. There are three rooms of well-spaced tables, and each room has a whimsical piece of mural from the 1920s. The back room has an additional touch of whimsy on the ceiling where subtle “stars” wink softly. The front room, overlooking the road, has exposed brick and can be closed off with French doors to provide a private dining space.
The bar is out of the sightlines of all dining rooms and is not intrusive. The dining areas themselves are quiet, allowing the pleasant murmurs of animated conversations among the diners to be the only background sounds. The tablecloths are an elegant black and white peacock design that was specifically created for the inn. And the lovely upholstered chairs — almost a chair and a half — are so comfortable.
Given the tendency of some new restaurants to try to wow the diner with oddly, and often awkwardly, designed china and cutlery, the simple lines of the clean white plates and plain crystal are welcome. Remembering that the restaurant had only been open five days, we were very impressed at the competence of the staff. Either they have hired only experienced people or they had an extensive and effective training program. Everyone moved with quiet efficiency and while attentive, the staff was not intrusive.
Our reservations were at 8:30 p.m. and the house was pleasantly full. We had only a few moments’ wait and were easily accommodated when I spied the “couple’s table” tucked in the bay window and asked to be seated there. The menu is intelligently kept focused to a nice variety of items. We had a choice of a la carte, a five-course tasting menu for $65 with an optional wine paring for $40, and a three-course vegetarian harvest menu for $39.
It is a tad difficult to describe the cuisine, given the unusual combinations of tastes, textures, and flavors that chef Manuel Perez uses. Pat Tanner (U.S. 1, May 5, “New Chefs on the Block”) calls it seasonal modern American but I call it fascinating. The meal began with a taste of lobster bisque from the chef, a surprisingly light bisque not drowning in cream and tasting of the clear, fresh ocean. The breads were a choice of hearty multigrain and sourdough, which were really no choice at all because we both had one of each.
To start, I chose soft shelled crab with compressed watermelon, onion, and pepper relish, an intriguing combination. The crab was moist and sweet. At $16, it was typical of the price range of appetizers. I followed that with the suckling pig with papaya relish and roasted yucca. I could easily order that every time. My friend ordered the vegetarian harvest, starting with gnocchi, which were delightfully delicate, and roasted vegetables with tortellini for the main course. While presented well, his portions were noticeably much smaller, dwarfed by the large plate. Both vegetarian dishes were quite tasty but in stark contrast to the nicely portioned entree that I had or saw being served at other tables.
Other dishes include roasted lobster, salmon en croute, and steak, all creatively paired with unusual combinations on the side. The prices for the a la carte menu ranged from the $20 range to the $40 range. The wine list is extensive and, just this once, we forwent the Chateau Lafite Rothschild Paulliac at $2,500 a magnum and enjoyed glasses of the excellent Malbec at $10.
The presentation of the meals concentrated on the food. Each dish focused on the ingredients. The chef did not try to produce a “story” with cute elaborations or display the meal as an architectural feat.
Dessert was part of the harvest menu, and my friend chose the strawberry rhubarb tart with elderberry sorbet. The tart was not overwhelming sweet and allowed the distinct tastes of both fruits to come out. It was an excellent choice but not an easy one as the other offerings were truly tempting. We ended the evening with tea and coffee at the bar, purely by choice. The pace of the meal was leisurely but well paced. The entire cost of the meal including wine was under $180 for two.
Parking for the Peacock Inn is problematic, a function of its being on busy Bayard Lane/Route 206. Valet parking is available but is hampered by cars discharging passengers at the curb and blocking the valets who are trying to move vehicles that have pulled into the drive. For those who, like us, do not want to have to engage in the additional transactions of handing over keys, waiting for the car to be fetched, etc., parking on the side streets is scarce. But a lovely walk after a lovely meal is one of the pleasures of Princeton.
Renewed and reinvigorated, the Peacock Inn is truly welcome back to town. The elegant venue encourages elegant attire. Most of the male diners were in coat and tie, including one well-dressed teenaged gentleman. Those men who think jeans and an untucked shirt is acceptable accompaniment to a date who has made the effort to dress nicely were blessedly few. While catering to adults, younger diners with sophisticated palates would be quite comfortable. The inn is the perfect place to impress a date or out of town guests. The decor is in keeping with the history of the house and those who remember the old Peacock Inn will be pleased with the renovation. The ambiance is relaxed and avoids the “too chic for you” feel of some of the newer restaurants that create a clique atmosphere.
The Peacock has much to be proud of now that her renovation is complete. The restaurant is a fitting complement to the sophisticated rooms. Having another choice for fine dining in town makes the whole community of Princeton richer.
The Peacock Inn, 20 Bayard Lane, 609-924-1707. www.peacockinn.com. Dinner: Sunday through Thursday, 5:30 to 9:30; Friday and Saturday, 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Lunch is not yet being served but will be, according to a spokesperson for the restaurant.