My favorite writer Oscar Wilde once said that she is the peacock in everything but beauty.
And since, I have often associated peacocks with tarnished eyes – beautiful with ugly feet, for example. And to my surprise, a vintage mansion in the thicket bordering downtown Princeton, a Great Gatsby style towering mystery location with its simple valet, or rather a haunted villa with coy mysteries, was called The Peacock Inn. Sweeping peacock murals in effortless silver graced the candlelit walls as we wandered in to the intimate ambiance. I was on the look out for prized artwork on the walls, including a painting of the famous John Von Neumann, a mathematician of Dutch roots. Executive Chef Manuel Perez promised me a vegetarian tasting menu made with ingredients sourced from local farmers, a staple in today’s fine dining establishments. And so the journey through the plumage of this peacock commenced.
The start was a series of parmesan fritters in a yuzu ginger broth of sorts, a succulent palette teaser for more to come. My meaty buddies received a retro plated dish that was rather starkly in contrast with the sensuous atmosphere. I avoided the duck and nibbled at the berry jam and corn fritters and caramelized onions with rosemary essence, both of which were surprisingly clear in their flavor. Precision was a natural forte with this peacock.
I commenced with a hearty butternut squash soup with curry leaf and lime. These cut the denseness of the soup, which was nonetheless filling in chilly Princeton weather. The curry leaf reminded me of mom’s Indian cooking inspired by the Western deserts of India, where the crispness was a crackling pleasure at the end of every savory bite.
Keeping with an Italian theme, classic for tasting menus that I’ve tried before, came a barley and pumpkin risotto with parmesan cheese. Not exemplary or other-worldly, this was simple, home cooked risotto at its temperate and bland best. Unlike the next Italian course, however.
For what arrived next swept me off my feet, literally. Brown butter gnocchi with asparagus and sundried tomatoes were just what my Italian dreams are made of. My obsession with gnocchi is not new, but this one beat previous attempts owing to the freshness that the vegetables brought. The sourness of asparagus and the vinegar essence of sundried tomatoes cut through the brown butter and density of potato for a salivating bite.
Next was the most surprising presentation of all: an eggplant steak with pear sauce, a white bean croquette and zucchini. Putting vegetables on a respectable pedestal, I liked the combination of sweet pear with charred eggplant, despite it being a least favorite vegetable. The croquette and zucchini sides completed this as a hearty, tasty and balanced dish, that while whimsical, stayed true to the lazy, contemporary and luxurious promise that Peacock Inn made.
We shared the desserts, and they were aplenty for the food photographing, sumptuously gorging trio. Reminiscent of a New York memory of triple desserts. I started with a British favorite: warm stick toffee date cake, with toffee sauce and vanilla bean ice cream. A signature here, it was a moist cake with only the sweetness of Middle Eastern dates, which I was grateful for considering the cloying toffee sauce. Nonetheless, one that gratified a heavy meal with a naturally sweet bite.
The deconstructed smores were rather deja vu, but nonetheless devour-worthy, with a coffee mousse, a pecan brownie, a toasted homemade marshmallow and simmering in a chocolate pecan sauce. While I didn’t feel like campfire in the exquisite setting, it definitely took me to sweeter days in the countryside.
Last was the toasted almond panna cotta with berry jam, an almond oat biscuit, peanut butter sauce and berry nut clusters. Despite being the most beautiful of desserts, perhaps falling prey to the peacock phenomenon, it fell into the lighter, fruitier variety of desserts, my lesser preferred one. I skipped the gelatinous texture altogether, but found solace in the sweet almond tastes of the photographable rest.
And so ended an evening with the peacock, with a mouthful of French macaroons in coconut flavors. And unlike Oscar Wilde’s premonition, I had found taste, beauty and peace with this peacock.