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Jan 6, 2010 03:58 AM

Hanami Princeton (ex-Sunny Garden): promising food, service not quite there

I was a regular at Sunny Garden for almost 20 years - from the old location on Emmons through their sojourn in South Brunswick and then the "palace" on Farber. Like many, I was dismayed at the recent deterioration of the place under the new ownership, though encouraged by would-be successors like Elements Asia and Kenji Fusion.

So with the hype surrounding its re-opening under a new name (though it still says "Sunny Garden" on the credit card slip), it seemed appropriate to check it out, which four of us did on a recent weekend.

The basic layout is unchanged, though the décor has been updated (e.g., white leather and chrome in the waiting area - not to mention an overwhelmingly huge TV screen tuned to the Food Network). There are some nice touches, like a pot of tea for those waiting for takeout or a table and a free cotton candy machine for the kids on the way out. The place was pretty full and finding parking was, as ever, an issue.

The menu is large and varied, and we did not even try to explore some of the sections, like the sushi. We started with soups: miso, "best wonton," and hot and sour. All were fine, though the menu does not mention that the "best" wontons are filled with shrimp rather than pork. This was not appreciated by the member of our party with the shellfish allergy, but the rest of us got to eat his wontons, which were yummy. We then split two appetizers, the japanese eggplant with sweet miso and the ceviche of the day. There were four nicely cooked eggplant slices with a light glaze and a little pile of tiny crunchy potato sticks. The ceviche was substantial, with octopus, cuttlefish, a white fin fish, and vegetables. The marinade did not have much zing, however.

The entrées were black pepper lamb chop, Peking duck, stir-fry seasonal vegetables (with goji berry), and sesame dusted grilled shrimp (with miso carrot puree and furikake). The presentation of the lamb chops was lovely and they were pronounced good. The Peking duck was Peking duck. The shrimp were large and well-cooked. And the veggies were nice but late late late. We had already waited a little too long for our mains when three of them showed up. It was another ten minutes before the fourth plate appeared (with all of the usual "go ahead - no, we'll wait" in the meantime). We split two ice creams (green tea and pistachio) for dessert. They were fine.

While we were in no hurry, with the pace of service we did take three hours to finish the meal, a long time for an Asian restaurant. Hanami clearly has some serious service issues (which are only magnified by memories of the quick precision of Sunny Garden). With luck, these are startup problems that will work themselves out. Sooner rather than later I hope, because the food is promising and I would like to go back.

Another post on Hanami complained about portion sizes. Soups, two appetizers, mains, and two desserts filled us up quite nicely, though there was nothing left to take home. Hanami is definitely not a two-or-three-entrées-for-a-table-of-four kind of place, but the per-person tab was $35, including tip, which I do not consider excessive.

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  1. How sad - one of the things I always liked about Sunny Garden was their excellent service. It made it feel like a much higher-priced restaurant than it was:) I dined there with a friend right before it changed hands, and I remember wondering why everything seemed so "off." Didn't realize there was a changeover occurring. Good to hear that the food isn't terrible, but I'm definitely holding off on trying it out until I hear things have improved service-wise.

    1 Reply
    1. re: Heatherb

      We were there last night. I agree with the note above, it's not Sunny Garden, in fact we were disappointed with both the food and service. The decor was redone nicely however, and my wife said the restrooms were very nice. Service was clumsy and they tried obnoxiously hard to sell us from the gourmet tea and smoothie menu which I didn't appreciate. My wife had a spicy tuna roll, which she said was quite good, but all the entrees were pricey and tasted of burned/old oil. These included Lo Mein, Mushu, and Fried Rice. The table next to ours was served Mushu before us, and their server filled the pancakes table-side. Ours were left to us for preparation. I left my wife a larger tip because she did an excellent job filling them. The server even had the nerve to ask if she "had fun" making them. Case closed. Personally I'll not return. Elements Asia on Quakerbridge Road is far superior in execution, flavor, service, and tea comes with each meal! I give them 6 months, max.


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