Tag Archives: Lisa Shao

Yet More Restaurants: Ricky’s Thai, Skillman; FunniBonz BBQ Smokehouse, Robbinsville; Szechuan House, Hamilton; Peony Pavilion, West Windsor; Cafe Vienna, Princeton

What I stated in my previous post holds true: I am still playing catch-up since my daughter’s wedding, and I continue to burst out in restaurant-related print. Here’s the next batch. I am still not current. Consider yourself warned.

Ricky’s Thai, Skillman

Heaven knows, there’s a dearth of good Thai restaurants in the Princeton area. Check out my review of newbie Ricky’s Thai, from the May issue of the Montgomery News.

Spicy duck

FunniBonz BBQ Smokehouse

Jim Barbour, the originator of the highly successful line of FunniBonz barbecue sauces, opened his first restaurant, the small, casual storefront FunniBonz BBQ Smokehouse in Robbinsville, in December 2013.

Courtesy Community News Service

Courtesy Community News Service

I recently sat down with him over lunch to get the scoop. Midway through our chat, he confessed that he had revealed things about himself that he’s never spoken of in public before. That includes his goal of turning FunniBonz into the Chipotle of fast-casual barbecue chains. My profile of Barbour-the-entrepreneur and Barbour-the-man is here, in the May issue of the Robbinsville Advance. In a subsequent post I’ll report on my lunch at FunniBonz. (Spoiler alert: I thought it was terrific.)

Lisa Shao of Szechuan House, Hamilton & Peony Pavilion, West Windsor

Assorted dim sum, Peony Pavilion

Assorted dim sum, Peony Pavilion

I’ve previously posted about Peony Pavilion, Shao’s Asian fusion restaurant that opened late last year on Farber Road, just off Route 1: reviewing it for the Montgomery News & blogging here about a dim sum lunch I later enjoyed. And I’ve long been a fan of the traditional Szechuan House on Nottingham Way, which Shao took over in 2010.

4-30 Cover & Front (1-8).indd

So for the cover story of the 2014 US 1 Spring Dining issue (above), I wanted to learn what makes this 44-year-old dynamo tick. Over lunch with Shao at Szechuan House I discovered how her love of the fine and performing arts led to her path as restaurateur. (I’ll report on that lunch in a subsequent post, too.)

Cafe Vienna, Princeton

Although there are already several fine coffeehouses downtown – Small World and Rojo’s to name just two – Cafe Vienna, which opened on April 26, sets itself apart by offering the beverages and sweet treats of a traditional Wiener Kaffehaus, including Sacher torte. It comes by them honestly: proprietor Anita Waldenberger is an Austrian native and many of the recipes are old family recipes.

Cafe Vienna, Princeton

Cafe Vienna, Princeton

I did a quick reconnoiter on Thursday afternoon. Sitting out on Nassau Street during the balmy post-deluge weather, my Jause for Kaffee und Kutchen consisted of a fine apple strudel and cafe mocha (hot chocolate with a shot of espresso). Clearly, more research is warranted.

 

 

Dim Sum Comes to Princeton & The Pillsbury Bake-off Evolves

No Carts, but Excellent Dim Sim at Peony Pavilion

Assorted dim sum, Peony Pavilion

Assorted dim sum @ Peony Pavilion

The Princeton area has long suffered from a dearth of dim sum. In particular, good dim sum. Which is why I jumped at the chance to try that of Peony Pavilion, which otherwise tags itself an “Asian fusion” restaurant. This stylish spot opened late last year in the space that had been Sunny Garden, and ever since I have been pleasantly surprised by its excellent sushi and successful fusion dishes. One example of the latter, pictured below, is miso-glazed Chilean sea bass with cinnamon-scented Korean black rice, sautéed East and West vegetables (e.g., baby bok choy, Brussels sprouts, and carrots), herb oil, & hoisin reduction.

Peony Pavilion Chilean Sea Bass

Peony Pavilion Chilean Sea Bass

Prices for the fusion entrees hover around the mid-twenties, which is of a piece with their quality and with the modern East-meets-West decor. (The rest of the menu, given over to pan-Asian noodle and rice dishes such as Pad Thai and teriyaki, skews lower.)

Bean curd skin rolls. Dim sum @ Peony Pavilion

Bean curd skin rolls. Dim sum @ Peony Pavilion

So when Peony Pavilion’s owner Lisa Shao – who also has the highly regarded Szechuan House in Hamilton – invited me to stop by for the dim sum that’s offered on weekend afternoons, I jumped at the chance.

And I was not disappointed. The selection and the execution reflect the restaurant’s overall aesthetic: authentic yet tweaked to be modern, made with first-rate ingredients, prepared by knowing chefs, and beautifully presented. Here are examples:

Shrimp Dumplings, Peony Pavilion

Delicate shrimp dumplings with translucent wrappers, Peony Pavilion

Beef with Rice Noodles, Peony Pavilion

Beef with Rice Noodles, Peony Pavilion. Silky rolled noodles, tender black mushrooms, succulent shredded beef.

Pork & preserved egg congee, Peony Pavilion. I could eat this every day.

Pork & preserved egg congee, Peony Pavilion. So soul-satisfying I could eat this every day. In the rear: crisp crab dumplings, the dim sum chef’s specialty.

Steam golden buns, Peony Pavilion.

Steam golden buns @ Peony Pavilion.

A sweet mixture of lotus seed paste & egg gives the golden bun its name. Peony Pavilion

A sweet mixture of lotus seed paste & egg gives the golden bun its name. @ Peony Pavilion

These are just a fraction of what I enjoyed and of what’s available. Prices range from $3.95 to $7.95. Dim sum is served on Saturday, 11 am to 3 pm and Sunday, 11 am to 4 pm. Peony Pavilion serves Alba Vineyards wines, but BYO is welcome.

Changes Made to the Pillsbury Bake-Off. Gluten-Free Bakers Take Note!

Pillsbury BakeoffIt’s that time again. You can enter to win the $1 million prize or, for the first time ever, you can cast a vote to determine this year’s winner. Plus, there’s a new gluten-free category. Here’s the scoop, straight from the Pillsbury folks:

“Start your ovens! The iconic 47th Pillsbury Bake-Off® Contest is redesigned and calling home cooks to compete for the $1 million Grand Prize. This year’s contest, which is now open for entries at www.BakeOff.com, will culminate at the finals November 3, 2014, at the Omni Nashville Hotel in Nashville, Tenn.
What’s new?

  • For the first time, America’s vote will be combined with the judges’ decisions to determine the Grand Prize Winner.
  • The Contest ingredient list has been expanded to include Pillsbury’s Gluten Free line of products.
    • Judges will award the Pillsbury® Gluten Free Award to the Finalist with the best recipe which uses a Pillsbury® Gluten Free product and does not contain wheat or any products that include wheat as an ingredient.
  • The Bake-Off® Contest now features four recipe categories with two separate entry periods.

Participants have two chances to enter and vote. The first entry period includes the Simply Sweet Treats and Savory Snacks & Sides categories and is open for entries from now until March 27 (11:59 a.m. CDT), 2014. The second contest entry period runs from March 27 (1:00 p.m. CDT) to May 8 (11:59 a.m. CDT), 2014 and calls for Weekend Breakfast Wows and Amazing Doable Dinners recipes.”

Chefs’ 1st & Best Food Memories; 2 Reviews: Montclair & Bernardsville

Happy New Year and, if you’re on the Eastern Seaboard, Happy Snow Day!  A good occasion for cozy reading by the cyber fireside – especially the following recollections by luminaries of the Princeton food scene about their earliest food influences.

From Disney World to Lahore, Pakistan: What Food Experiences Made Big Impressions on Future Foodies

(Adapted from my column in the December 16, 2013 issue of the Princeton Packet)

Each year my final In the Kitchen column is a compilation of answers to a question I pose to a different group of Princeton-area chefs and restaurateurs. The theme is always personal and often lighthearted, such as “My Craziest New Years Eve Ever.” (I just may have to reprise that 2005 gem next year.) This time around I asked two veterans of and two newcomers to the dining scene for their first and/or best food memories.

Newcomers are Ben Nerenhausen, chef at the critically acclaimed Mistral, which opened in May, and Lisa Shao. Shao has owned Hamilton’s Szechuan House for three years, but just weeks ago debuted Peony Pavilion, her Japanese and Asian fusion restaurant on Farber Road (in the space where Sunny Garden reigned for years). The vets are Jim Weaver and Jessica Durrie. Weaver’s restaurant, Tre Piani, celebrated its 15th year at Forrestal Village earlier this year, while Durrie’s Small World Coffee kicked off its 20th anniversary celebration in December. Below, in their own words, are this quartet’s reflections.

Mistral-Logo

Ben Nerenhausen, Mistral, Princeton: While I’m not sure if it’s my best childhood memory, I sure know it’s one of my most memorable.  It happened while we were living in Lahore, Pakistan. I must have been around eight or nine years old at the time, and we had some local friends of ours who invited us out to one of their favorite places for lunch.

We arrived in the neighborhood, which was in one of the poorer areas of town and parked our car. We met our friends who told us from here we would continue on foot. They proceeded to guide us through the maze of side streets and back alley ways, all of which seemed to get smaller, shorter, and dirtier. We finally arrived at our destination. My family and I looked around quizzically. “Where’s the door?” my father asked.  Our friends pointed to a dark staircase that disappeared through an archway. “It’s upstairs” they replied. So our journey continued… After about three rickety flights we finally arrived.

There were no lights. There was no electricity. The soda placed in my hand was warm. Around us were maybe four or five dusky tables set with silverware, napkins, and bowls. In the corner of the room bubbled an enormous vat which smelled of fragrant spices and chilies. We sat down, and immediately warm naan and chapati were laid on the table. The “chef” – or at least the guy standing over the cauldron – began ladling the contents into our bowls. “What was it?” I thought. In my bowl was what appeared to be a boiled hoof surrounded by a bright red broth, thick with gelatin. “Goat” our friends announced emphatically.

Now, over the years I have come to love goat; it’s one of my favorite meats to work with. But for my eight-year-old self, the hoof sticking out of that bowl was a bit of a shock. I picked at the meat. The jelly and collagen stretched and melted away. A wave of panic and disappointment washed over me. I was hungry! I hadn’t eaten breakfast! In my desperation, my eyes fell on the broth. “Aha! There’s no sticky, melty goo in there,” I thought. I cautiously dipped a piece of bread into the savory jus and took a bite. It was amazing! The flavors from all that cooking, the richness of the broth, the complexity of flavors!  I was ravenous, and I quickly sopped up all of the broth in my bowl. To this day I have a fond nostalgia for the flavors and food of this part of the world, and experiences like this one have helped to shape me into the chef I am today. A little more adventurous, a little more appreciative, and a lot more happy.

Peony Pavilion Chilean Sea Bass

Peony Pavilion Chilean Sea Bass

Lisa Shao, Peony Pavilion, West Windsor & Szechuan House, Hamilton: One of my fondest childhood memories of food is a home-cooked dish that my mother used to make for me. It was simple goodness, was satisfying, and always cheered me up. It was fresh farm eggs scrambled with ripe, juicy red tomatoes, a splash of soy sauce and topped with bits of green onions that looked like confetti.

All the ingredients came from local farms in Szechuan Province – an agricultural-rich region – and purchased that day from the market by my mother. I loved the sound of my mom cracking and scrambling the eggs, their mouth-watering fragrance, and finally the beautiful colors presented to me on my plate.

This is my first recollection of when my passion for art, culture, and food began to blossom. Music and dance followed soon thereafter and whenever I heard music I would start to dance, at home or in front of crowds. I still dance today and I also serve my son my favorite dish from my childhood days. I have found that owning restaurants has enabled me to express my love for the arts in a much broader sense to many more people every day. (It is why I have included over 200 photos of the famous 16th century Chinese opera into the interior design of Peony Pavilion.) Being surrounded by and sharing great food, art, and music makes me very happy.

locavore_adventuresJim Weaver, Tre Piani, Forrestal Village: My childhood food experiences were pretty vanilla, but we did get a few fun things from time to time. My earliest memories are of cooking with my grandmothers and learning how to make such masterpieces as scrambled eggs, mashed potatoes, and chocolate milk!

I can say I was ruined for life when it came to a couple of items that I did enjoy very much, but I was more like eight or ten years of age. In my town one of my best friends had apple, pear, and peach trees. Eating those crisp, tart apples off the tree was amazing. Come to think of it, when I was even younger we were at Disney World and my father walked me into an orange grove and picked a couple of the fruits. They were like eating candy! Today, I cannot enjoy most of the fruit that you find at the supermarkets or out of season. (If you read the chapter on tomatoes in my book, Locavore Adventures, you’ll learn that fruits have been engineered purposefully to not have the “bite” like they were meant to have because most people prefer bland! UGGGGGGH!!!)

My other experiences were eating super-fresh seafood on Cape Cod where we spent summers. Fishing in either freshwater ponds for bullhead catfish or pickerel, cleaning them in the backyard, and frying them up with cornmeal at my grandfathers side was always a treat. We also went clamming and then enjoyed them within an hour of harvest. Saltwater fishing was also typical and we used to catch ridiculous amounts of wild striped bass – some over 60 pounds each!  Incredible fish, still illegal to buy or sell in NJ due to dated laws and the [lobbying of] recreational fishermen. I was privy to Wellfleet oysters long before they were in vogue and today when it comes to oysters – which I adore and would eat raw long before I could summon the courage to eat a tomato – I cannot eat them unless they are super fresh. Even a few days out of the water and my palate can taste it. Ruined for life!!

Small World Coffee Cafes

Small World Coffee Cafes

Jessica Durrie, Small World Coffee, Princeton: My Dad’s job [he worked for General Motors] took us to Italy in 1969 when I was three-and-a-half years old. We moved into an old farmhouse outside of Rome with eleven acres of vineyards, orchards, vegetable gardens, rabbits and chickens. It was all taken care of by an old farmer, Carlos. During the summer those trees and vines were bursting with fruit. We ran free on this property, and had a big bell to ring so we would know when to come home for meals. I remember the smells of the fields, especially the wild fennel.

One of my favorite activities was collecting pinecones and picking out the seeds, which I would crack with a rock so that I could extract the delicious kernel, a pignole. I’m sure my older siblings showed me how to do this! I also remember the local neighborhood store where we could buy bread smeared with slices of gianduja. I remember afternoons at our babysitter’s house, where the smell of cooking in the kitchen was a constant: tomato sauce, pesto, homemade pasta, pine nut brittle.

As much as all of these memories are so strong and wonderful, I also have to say that when we would go back to the States for “home leave,” my siblings and I would rush to the 7-Eleven, near our beach rental at Stinson Beach in California, and binge on American candy and a Slurpee!

Reviews: Escape in Montclair & Bistro Seven.Three in Bernardsville

Sometimes a restaurant critic just gets lucky. These two are winners.

Escape, Bryan Gregg’s modern takes on Southern food, opened in Montclair earlier this year. Here’s my review, from the December issue of New Jersey Monthly.

That same issue includes my review of Bistro Seven.Three, the latest Mediterranean restaurant from a team of seasoned Bernardsville restaurateurs.