Restaurant Review

Elements

Finally reopened in its new downtown home, Princeton's Elements brings depth, daring and delight to high-end prix-fixe.

Sashimi with peach purée and wild rice.
Sashimi with peach purée and wild rice.
Photo by Stuart Goldenberg

I confess I felt silly when the hostess, welcoming us to the long-awaited new Elements in downtown Princeton, escorted us into the private elevator and pressed 2. I think I could have handled that—there was no other button to push. Then she rode up with us and turned us over to another hostess who led us to our table, a distance of about 20 feet.

I know of only one other restaurant in New Jersey that escorts you into a private elevator for the briefest of rides and then all but leads you by the hand to your table. That is Restaurant Latour in the Crystal Springs Resort in Hardyston. Neither frets that you might lose your way unaided. While it’s coincidence that both dining rooms are one level above the ground floor, in both cases the journey is metaphorical. You are rising above the everyday, entering a rarefied realm for an experience you will long remember.

The tasting menus in our two visits to Elements began with an ineffable amuse bouche, presented in a small, covered bowl: a single, fresh-picked shirohana bean flower. It was small and white, smelled a bit like jasmine, had a mild, moist crunch, and the flavor equivalent of one hand clapping. (In the larger of our two meals, it was followed by the pleasingly squishy frisson of marinated woodear mushrooms, which you lift with chopsticks off little oak branches arranged in a box of live moss, lichens and ivy, a bit of the forest come to your table.) Did these subtleties portend a descent into preciousness?

No, they were like a magician’s misdirection, for next came a trumpet blast worthy of Arturo Sandoval—an amazing and marvelous riff on a Cuban sandwich. It was a mambo of a mouthful combining ham, meltingly chewy braised pork skin, mustard sauce made with the braising liquid, melted Cherry Grove Farm gruyère and tiny round Mexican sour gherkins, all of which were layered on the thing that enables you to pick it up and slide it into your mouth: a warm, crisp, tempuraed leaf of Cuban oregano (aka Mexican mint).

We were off on a wild but carefully plotted journey through Asian, Latin, French and American flavors and techniques. It wasn’t a slide show of single images, but an evening’s immersion in cross-cultural montages.

Executive chef and co-owner Scott Anderson and chef de cuisine Mike Ryan made eclectic, state-of-the-art cooking their signature at the original Elements. But the new Elements is different in several ways from the one that opened on the outskirts of Princeton in late 2008 and earned five consecutive appearances on NJM’s annual Top 25 list before closing in June 2014 to join its sister restaurant, the casual Mistral, in the building owned by Anderson and business head Stephen Distler in the heart of downtown.

The new Elements is much smaller: 28 seats, down from 80. That gives every seat a view of the open kitchen, which is no more than about a dozen paces from any table. That intimacy facilitates the deeper changes. The first of these is no more à la carte. There are four prix-fixe tasting menus (availability varies with day of week)—a 4-course, a 5-course, a 12-course Chef’s Tasting and a 17-to-20-course Grand Tasting. Everyone at the table is required to order the same menu so that everyone receives the same number of courses. That matters because (in a style of service made famous by Noma in Copenhagen) each course is brought to the table and explained in a few words by the chefs or cooks who prepared it. It works because there is usually just one dish to explain. (If one or more in your group is on a vegan, gluten-free or other special diet, mention it when you make the reservation and the chefs will modify the dishes as needed.)

The move enabled Mistral to share the Elements liquor license. Equally important, Mistral’s combination of moderate prices; casual atmosphere; creative, fun food; and lunch (or brunch) and dinner Thursday through Sunday sets Anderson and Ryan free. Elements is esoteric, the vibe a tad ascetic. It isn’t for everyone, and even for those it suits, it requires an investment of time, money and attention they might not want to muster with great frequency. But that’s fine, because the frisky puppy is right downstairs.

The construction of a bar for Mistral, which occupies the ground floor, and the transformation of the second floor into the new Elements, were expected to take six months. It took 14. Anderson, 41, and Ryan, 35, nearly went stir-crazy. Now they’re stir-crazy in a good way, actually stirring things, not to mention foraging local plants, pickling in ways Western and Asian, curing, smoking, roasting and the rest.

“We don’t have a name for it,” Anderson told me after my visits. “What Mike and I do is take whatever is around us and, with our knowledge and techniques, use it in some wholehearted way.”

Ninety percent of their vegetables, they told me, come from Dave Zaback’s organic Z Food Farm in Lawrenceville. Mushrooms come from Shibumi Farm in Princeton. Fish and meat of superb quality come from near and far: Jersey pork and eggs, North Carolina sturgeon caviar,  richly marbled Japanese Wagyu beef.

On our first visit, we had the Grand Tasting. Not everything was a knockout, but there were plenty of epiphanies (heightened by the handmade plates and bowls, each a work of art). A compelling dish called Nightshades combined tomatillos three ways (raw, sun-dried, roasted) in a cool tomatillo gelée of surprising depth.

Snow Crab was a stunning stew of crabmeat; shredded, charred cabbage; a house-made chile mustard; and a base of crumbled biscuits and fried chicken skin in chicken jus enriched with egg yolk.

The theme of Patranque was contrasts of creaminess. Sea urchin roe was placed atop patranque, a rustic old French dish of day-old rye bread and Cantal cheese cooked with garlic, onions and milk. Add Vietnamese herbs and beef sauce and East met West in a plush hammock.

We had the five-course on our second visit. Portions were a little bigger, and the meal was light but satisfying. It included a brilliant shima aji (Japanese striped jack fish) sashimi with peach purée, wild rice and Trinidad perfume chili. Lush Australian beef ribeye was presented too rare for my taste. I trimmed and nibbled the edges but finally asked for it to be refired. Not only did they do so, they remade the dish with its accompaniments.

The five-course ended with the most satisfying dessert, a bowl of grilled plums on an eggless custard called a posset (flavored with shiso, an Asian mint). A reduced plum gel added tartness, and puffed rice added textural contrast.

Desserts on the Grand Tasting were somewhat minimalist. “I appreciated that,” said one of my guests. “At that point, I didn’t want a huge crescendo of sugar and fat.” The last offering in both meals was—gasp!—a peppermint patty. Not a York, but a chilled, subtly bourbon-infused, dark chocolate-covered mint sprinkled with Maldon salt.

Alas, poor York.

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Restaurant Details

  • Cuisine Type:
    American - Modern
  • Price Range:
    Expensive
  • Price Details:
    Four-course menu (Tuesday through Friday only), $79; five-course (Saturday only), $99; 12-course Chef's Tasting, $125; 17-to-20-course Grand Tasting, $185 (reserve one week ahead). Gluten-free and vegan menus available with 24-hour notice.
  • Ambience:
    Serene, minimalists luxury.
  • Service:
    Swift and efficient. The chef who cooks your dish serves it and tells you about it.
  • Wine list:
    Few bottles under $50. Many treasures, such as Williams Selyem Sonoma pinot noirs. Excellent course-by-course wine pairings by wine director Carl Rohrbach, $55 to $125 a person, depending on the menu. Four signature cocktails.

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