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Sunny Garden

Restaurant closed.
15 Farber Road
Princeton, Mercer County, New Jersey
(609) 520-1881

By The Artful Diner
Special to New Jersey Online

With regard to Chinese restaurants... Over the years, in the interest of personal peristaltic self-preservation, I've concocted my own peculiar method of culinary taxonomy. The scheme goes something like this:

1) The Scruffy Little Take-Out Joint -- All Chinese restaurants do a significant amount of their business "to go," but these matchbook size revolving doors deal in container cargo only. Prices are usually rock bottom and -- the quality of the glossy collection of photographs depicting various and sundry comestibles notwithstanding -- the caliber of the victuals in these greasy spoons can be problematic. As a general rule, it ranges from simply horrid to semi-edible, depending on the luck of the draw.

2) The Slightly Larger Scruffy Little Take-Out Joint -- These diminutive establishments actually supplement their take-out counter (and glossy collection of photographs) with tables and chairs. They also tend to have one waiter/waitress in permanent residence. But don't let that fool you... The dragon's share of their income, as you may easily discern from the jangling telephone and nonstop comings and goings, is derived from a peripatetic populace. Prices are generally inexpensive, and the cuisine ranges from semi-horrid to semi-good... Once again, it's the luck of the draw.

3) The Standard Sit-Downer -- Here you will find a full complement of assorted restaurant personnel, all ready, willing, and (usually) able to be of service to a highly diverse clientele that plans to stay put for a spell. The décor is generally nondescript, the prices generally moderate, and the food generally in the fair to good range.

4) The Gourmet Dynasty -- If you have yet to visit this new breed of Chinese chophouse, fasten your seatbelt. The chefs are imported, the menus artistic, and the waiters tuxedoed... ditto the tariffs (read here, "Expensive"). The cuisine, of course, may or may not be on a par with the prices; it may range anywhere from semi-good to extraordinary. The highly-touted Chengdu 46 in Clifton has been extremely influential in leading the charge toward gastronomic gentrification, but several other Chinese restaurants in the Garden State have followed suit.

If you are at all concerned with the continuous good health of your delicate innards, the first two categories should probably be dismissed out of hand. For those in search of the mean between two extremes, proprietor Yu-Lien Yen's Sunny Garden, located just off raucous Route 1 in Princeton, strikes a pleasant middle ground between the hoity-toity monetary and culinary excesses of the "Gourmet Dynasty" and the minimalist décor and often so-so cookery of the "Standard Sit-Downer."

The three dining areas are pleasantly upscale and tastefully appointed; tables are large and well spaced; there is also an attractive sushi bar for those who wish to get up close and personal with sushi chef Alex Ren's Japanese specialties. The waiters here are strictly no nonsense and come spiffily attired in tuxedo shirts and lime green bowties.

Just be prepared... Regardless of the classy decorative embellishments or the sartorial splendor of the members of the staff, you may expect the vast majority of patrons to adorn themselves like refugees from a rescue mission thrift shop. During my visits, I was decked out in jeans and a sports jacket and felt grossly overdressed. What is it about a visit to a Chinese restaurant that prompts people to clothe themselves like misanthropic goatherds?

But on to the food... You will find chef Pei Lin Qiu's appetizers and entrées beautifully presented and elegantly garnished; all ingredients are impeccably fresh and obviously prepared with great care. My only criticism is that a considerable number of main courses appear to have been "dumbed down" for the bland-leading-the-bland American palate and could use a good deal more pizzazz and consistency. If you can stand a bit of heat, my advice would be to cast your lot with the simpler more assertively seasoned offerings rather than the more convoluted fare.

Of the starters, I am particularly partial to the moo-shu vegetables with morsels of fried egg ($5.00) and the boiled spinach dumplings ($5.00). Both are menu mainstays in Chinese restaurants, but they are particularly well executed here. The former are accompanied by two delicate pancakes and a pungent hoisin sauce, the latter with an invigorating teriyaki-soy dipping broth.

From the Japanese side of the card, Mr. Ren's white tuna sashimi ($5.50), a daily special, is utterly pristine; and the crustaceans and various legumes that make up the shrimp and vegetable tempura ($6.50) exhibit just the proper crunch beneath the embrace of their deep-fried ethereal batter. Conversely, the beef satay ($5.50) is overly fatty and paired with a rather odd tasting peanut sauce.

Entrées bring to the fore the kitchen's constant battle with consistency. Some dishes are too hot, or too sweet, or too bland... or all of the above. And the establishment's "Creaky Chicken" ($13.50), billed as one of the chef's specialties, is surely a case in point. Delicate slices of white meat chicken are shallow fried, then quickly sautéed with fresh ginger and hot peppers. The impeccably prepared chicken is moist and juicy; unfortunately, it is drowned in a cloying brown sauce that effectively sucks up both the flavor and the fire, leaving the palate wanting. Thus, depending upon where you happen to munch at the moment, you will be treated to either too much "heat" or too much "sweet." A great deal more appealing is the chicken and eggplant in garlic sauce ($12.50) or chicken in black bean sauce ($10.50). In both cases, the chicken is still quite moist, the flavors more forthcoming, and the spices infinitely better balanced.

Seafood is big here, and the kitchen enjoys commingling the various inhabitants of Davy Jones' locker. As with the aforementioned fowl, however, the results can be somewhat mixed. The "Orange Flavored Sea Treasure" ($18.50) -- shrimp, scallops, and lobster sautéed with orange peel and dried hot pepper -- is quite good... but it arrives at table clothed in aluminum foil in the shape of a swan. This adornment might be acceptable for doggy bags, but not as a main course presentation in an upscale restaurant. Terribly tacky, in my opinion. "The "Seafood Pot" ($17.00), another diverse gathering of denizens of the deep, is incredibly bland... ditto the stir-fried asparagus & jumbo shrimp ($15.00) and the diced crabmeat, shrimp, and scallops in lettuce cups ($16.50).

If you're determined to travel the seafood route, my advice is to cast your lot with the "Poached Fish Chinese Way" ($14.50), a moist, flaky flounder filet bathed in a fragrant soy, ginger, and scallion broth. There's just enough subtle seasoning to hold your interest without being terribly intrusive. A superlative effort.

Dessert selections are virtually nonexistent at most Chinese eateries, but Sunny Garden does have a few more options to tempt your sweet tooth. Gelato ($3.00) from Ciao Bella in New York City's Little Italy would be my first choice, followed by the fresh fruit platter ($6.00) or fried banana ($5.50). Premium teas ($2.00) -- green, jasmine, or oolong -- are also available, as is coffee ($2.00).

Sunny Garden has surely been one of the driving forces behind the move toward the gentrification of Chinese cuisine in the Garden State. Its strong suit is the utilization of the freshest possible comestibles carefully prepared and elegantly presented... but it is not without its Achilles' heel...

Its weakness, on the one hand, lies in its apparent desire to placate the ho-hum middle-of-the-road American palate; and, on the other, in its attempts to mix and match certain sauces and culinary embellishments best left to their own devices. More specifically, the kitchen seems to have a particular problem ascertaining an adequate (and appetizing) mean between two extremes: namely, sweetness and spice.

My advice is to avoid the more innovative dishes, which often fall short of the mark. Cast your lot instead with the simpler presentations that are more assertively and straightforwardly seasoned, and you will not be disappointed. Failing that stratagem, park yourself at the sushi bar.

Cuisine: Chinese/Japanese
Hours: Sun - Thurs, 11:30 a.m. - 10:00 p.m.; Fri & Sat, 11:30 a.m. - 11:00 p.m.
Credit Cards: All major
Attire: Casual
Smoking: Smoking is not permitted in the restaurant.
Reservations: Accepted
Parking: Onsite
Alcohol: BYOB
Price: Inexpensive/Moderate
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
Web site: www.sunnygarden.net

The Artful Diner is an independent, freelance food writer.  His latest review and an archive of past reviews for restaurants around the country and the world can be found on this site on the REVIEWS page.

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