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Since at least last summer, Princeton has been abuzz about the any-month-now opening of two highly anticipated restaurants: Agricola and Mistral. Agricola finally opened last month. Now all eyes turn to Mistral, from the team that created Elements, a perennial on NJM's Top 25. Elements executive chef Scott Anderson gave me a tour of the space.
Anderson points out three new French doors overlooking Hulfish Street. It was only after construction was well underway, he says, that he and business partner Stephen Distler learned that the space--most recently a UPS store and before that a Japanese restaurant--started in the 1950s as an auto repair shop.
“That was pretty cool,” Anderson says, because the Elements space also had been a garage in a previous incarnation. For a chef who is a Buddhist and who cites a childhood partially lived in Japan as a major influence on his aesthetic, it seemed like destiny, karma or at least feng shui.
Mistral is named for the French Provencal wind, but it will serve Anderson’s modern take on international small plates, in a more relaxed setting than Elements and at somewhat more everyday prices.
Until Mistral opens (late this month, Anderson says), Elements is offering a selection of Mistral dishes. As chef de cuisine of Mistral, Anderson has brought onboard Ben Nerenhausen. For the last three years Nerenhausen has been sous chef at the Michelin three-star The Restaurant at Meadowood in Napa Valley. The Restaurant is a finalist for two James Beard awards next month.
“Ben will be arriving here in a couple of days,” Anderson says. “I have no fear he’ll be running the kitchen and I’ll be back at Elements in no time.”
When I wonder aloud if this West Coast chef will be able to transition to the East, Anderson replies that the ace in the hole is that Nerenhausen’s girlfriend lives in New York.
Mistral will seat 40 indoors and eventually another 40 outdoors. Light-toned natural materials, especially wood and stone, predominate, as they do at Elements (which, by the way, just ranked #23 on Opinionated About Dining’s list of top 100 U.S. restaurants.)
“I had my hand in picking out the materials, as I did with Elements,” Anderson says, as he grimaces at three all but microscopic bits of spackle splattered on the smooth, pale stone blocks that line the rear wall below a big stainless steel kitchen hood. The ceiling features two kinds of wood: rough-hewn, pickled-wood beams lined on the diagonal with reddish wood slats. On the floor, more wood, mottled gray this time, and reclaimed from old barns.
Bistro tables topped with thick slabs of unstained wood will sit just inside the French doors. (On the front side of the building, these do not actually open: they’re windows that look like doors. But the French doors on the side of the building are real, and open onto a patio with seating.). The open kitchen will feature the same high-tech equipment as Elements, including thermal circulators and CVap ovens for sous vide cookery.
Partners Anderson and Distler purchased the entire building at 66 Witherspoon Street. “What really sold me on the space,” Anderson says, “is the basement.” In fact, it’s huge. There’s ample room for an employee changing room, an office and a prep kitchen large enough for multiple tables and for the wide berth needed for the band saw that will be used to break down whole animals. One walk-in refrigerator is already in place, but Anderson will add two more, including one kept at 50 degrees (Fahrenheit) and dedicated solely to curing house-made charcuterie.
Mistral will not have a liquor license, so the team will offer interesting non-alcoholic drinks. Already steeping at Elements are gallon jars and glass bottles filled with concoctions featuring pears, vanilla, ruby-colored rooibos tea and more.
Anderson and his contractor swear that Mistral will open by the end of April. “As soon as you enter, you’ll see six oversize tiles on the floor, custom made by John Shedd,” Anderson says, referring to the Rocky Hill potter who has designed tableware, vessels and ceramic artwork for several restaurants, including Elements, Rat’s and Tre Piani. “One of the tiles will likely be a freehand rendition of the Mistral symbol. But," says this culinary artist, "I’m giving him leeway with the design–I like to let artists be artists.”
66 Witherspoon Street