We made the 45-minute drive to Princeton without incident, arriving at our restaurant destination promptly for our 8 p.m. reservation. But now, we were stumped! Finding the access to elements was not elementary. We could see the striking building from the road, but where, exactly, was the access from the road to the building and, specifically, to the parking lot at the rear? The street immediately to the right was a one-way in the wrong direction; to the left stood a gas station. After trying one or two approaches down streets that did not cut through, M whipped out his cell phone but got only the answering machine telling us to leave a message. Not helpful!! So, we decided to make one more very slo-o-ow pass in front of the restaurant, and I finally spotted it – a narrow driveway entrance just to the left of the restaurant’s signage. Once we were made the turn onto the driveway, it widened out, taking us directly in front of the building, then on to another narrow driveway on the left leading to the rear parking lot. As we got out of our car, I commented that this situation could easily have been avoided if there had been an entrance arrow sign at the foot of the driveway visible from the road.
This was, obviously, our first visit to elements, and we were there in early June to celebrate our anniversary. Oddly, though the restaurant opened in October ’08, it has not been reviewed by either the Star-Ledger or the New York Times (restaurant reviews appear in Sunday’s NJ section). I did find very positive reviews from two other publications on-line: NJ Monthly’s website, and centralnewjersey.com, whose newspapers include the Princeton Packet. There’s a thread on Chowhound with several reviews ranging from a rave, to very good (more issues with service than with the food), to one absolute bash (“I’ll give the Elements [sic] another 6 months before it closes.”). The most surprising review, at least to me, came from Steve Plotniki, who wrote about it on his blog, Opinionated About Dining. Who would have thought that Plotniki, who dines at the finest establishments the world over, would be found chowing down in a restaurant in New Jersey, let alone raving about it? Finally, we had been urged to try elements by Brian Kurlock, the chef and co-owner of Steakhouse 85, a restaurant in New Brunswick, which opened last fall and quickly became one of our favorites. He extolled the virtues of the cuisine, and even though he and Scott Anderson, elements’ chef, are friends, I felt I could trust Brian to give us an honest assessment. After all, I can’t imagine he would want to tick off valued customers by recommending food that wasn’t up to our high standards.
Chef/Partner Scott Anderson arrived at the position of elements’ executive chef never having been to culinary school. According to his bio on the restaurant’s website, he is a graduate of Rutgers where he studied math, psychology and Asian cultures and earned money by working in restaurants. After graduating, he worked for several years in various restaurants, eventually spending more than six years at the highly acclaimed Ryland Inn, rising to become Craig Shelton’s Chef de Cuisine. The money man behind elements is Stephen Distler, a semi-retired private equity executive and Chairman of the Bank of Princeton. It was his vision to build this restaurant, and he chose Anderson to helm the kitchen. We were informed by one of the servers that much of the staff both in the kitchen and in the front of the house worked with Anderson at the Ryland Inn, which closed a few years ago.
When we entered elements, there was no receptionist on duty; however, we were immediately greeted very cordially by one of the servers who, as he led us to the dining room, mentioned that we were the last reservation on the books for that Monday evening. The dining room was not nearly full, so we were given our choice of tables. We could sit along the banquette at a table for two, or we could have a 4-top either just to the right of the entrance or smack in the middle of the room. M didn’t have a preference, so I chose the latter.
Looking around the interior, it was hard to believe that we were sitting in what was once an auto repair garage. The immense two-story structure has been brilliantly reconfigured using a variety of materials and textures. Just past the entry foyer and under a staircase is a snug little bar area with four stools. The stairs lead up to a second story where, I understand, there is more seating and a glassed-in wine room.
The main dining room is smaller than photos I’ve seen made it appear. Most striking is the towering stone wall on the entrance side. The wall on the opposite side has tall milk glass windows (to block out the view of the neighboring gas station), and wall insets that hold a few vases, as well as an oblong wooden box filled with what looked like blades of grass. A very large modern painting to the rear of one of the side walls provides the only burst of vibrant color. Otherwise, earth tones rule. Flat carpeting in a brown and beige twist; beige fabrics for the pleated shades covering the windows facing towards the road; chairs – and very comfortable ones they are – covered in fabric with a light brown background and white pattern resembling very thin branches. Atop the tables of dark wood, two runners in shades of brown crisscross and are cut to fit the precisely to the four edges of the table. When we sat down, save for those runners and a candle in a small glass, the table was completely bare — no place settings, no charger plates, and no glassware. Glasses and utensils were brought at the appropriate times during service.
M thought the room was rather stark, mostly due, he felt, to the stone wall. I quite liked the stone; in fact, I found the décor pleasant and soothing. The lighting was appropriate, and the noise level was fine. However, given the abundance of hard surfaces, the reports of a very high noise level when the room is full does not surprise me.
Just after we were seated, another server came to our table with a friendly greeting and the drinks menu in hand. M. had decided not to have any wine. When he asked about a bottle of Perrier or Pellegrino, the server replied that they had only house sparkling water. M was fine with that. Turned out to be a bargain at $3.50, and even though they poured a little more than one bottle, there was no additional charge. I settled for “Chateau Princeton.” Water glasses were brought and promptly filled.
We had perused the menu on-line, and I had also called the restaurant in the afternoon to ask for information regarding the chef’s tasting menu, mentioned on the website but with no details. The woman I spoke with told me it is served at tables situated with a view of the kitchen. Chef Anderson chats with diners to ascertain their likes and dislikes, then proceeds to prepare a 9-course menu. The cost is $95, and wine pairings are available. After discussing it, we had decided to stick with the a la carte menu. However, when we opened the menus provided at the table, we discovered that there was also a 6-course printed tasting menu for $75. Looking it over, we noted that it was composed of dishes from the a la carte menu. We weren’t particularly enamored of the selections, so we stayed with Plan A.
On our way back home, when M and I discussed the meal we’d just had, he said that listening to me deconstruct and comment on the various dishes and their elements, it sounded as though I wasn’t too thrilled with the food. Not accurate, I replied. Although I did find things to criticize, everything we ate was interesting – in a good way – and several of the dishes were rave-worthy.
How could I not swoon over the Kindai Tuna with White Soy, Scallion, and Ginger? We had originally thought we’d start by sharing only one appetizer, the Wild King Salmon. But M changed his mind and suggested we order the Kindai as well and share both dishes. Cut into large dice, the superbly silky tuna was formed into a thick snake shape. The other elements were masterfully employed with the soy playing well against the tuna’s unctuous sweetness, and the scallions adding a bit of tang and crunch. As for the ginger, if it was, indeed, there, it was too subtle for me to notice. But no matter. As M punned, “It was a dish one ‘kindai’ for!”
By comparison, the Wild King Salmon, Dauphinoise, Black Truffle, and Dill felt a bit pedestrian. The main element, the thick wedge of fish, had excellent flavor, but it had been cooked just a bit too much past medium-rare. On the other hand, the potatoes had not been cooked quite enough; therefore, though nice and cheesy, they were slightly too hard The swath of sauce, which turned out to be white truffle instead of black, was very tasty. Where the dill came into the picture I couldn’t say.
The two other dishes that wowed us were totally unexpected. After finishing our first courses, we were sitting back, chatting, and waiting for our mains, when, to our surprise, Chef Anderson, clad in his whites, suddenly appeared at our table carrying two plates which he set down before us with his compliments. After he described each one, we thanked him, and he left us to enjoy his gifts. And enjoy them we certainly did though we hadn’t the faintest idea why he was treating us.
Both dishes were on the specials list recited to us by our captain, Justin. In front of me was Dungeness Crab with a Salad of Pickled Vegetables. The crab, cooked just right, had a lovely soft texture and sat jauntily atop the salad. Anyone who loves things pickled, as I do, would swoon over that salad as I did. The elements of this dish were an outstanding combination of textures and flavors.
The dish in front of M was dubbed Spot Prawns with “’Tater Tots.” It showed both Chef Anderson’s cooking prowess and his sense of humor. An upscale version of fish ‘n’ chips, the elements were appealingly plated. Again, a snaky assemblage for the prawns. I’m not sure what method was employed to cook them, but they were delicious. Next to them sat a little round cake composed of chip-like potatoes, which was equally delicious. A third element on the plate was quenelle-shaped, white, and creamy, but I’m at a loss to remember what it was. Regardless, it and the other elements worked extremely well together.
Both these dishes had us ooh-ing and aah-ing and reveling in our good fortune of having these gifts bestowed on us.
One other stellar offering was the bread basket (actually, a silver container). It arrived with one of the banes of our restaurant experiences, the dreaded dipping oil; however, our request for butter was promptly met. And once we tasted the basket’s contents, all was immediately forgiven with regard to the oil thingy. The elements in the basket were not your usual rolls or slices of bread; instead, there were crisp flat bread and bread sticks, plus focaccia topped with oven-dried tomatoes. All are baked in house, and all were insanely delectable and addictive. It was really difficult to stop ourselves from overdosing – not that we made much of an effort.
A duo of amuses arrived shortly after the bread basket: Tart with Asiago Cheese and Spinach, and Tasso ham, Caramelized Onions, and Asiago on Toasted Bread. In size, both were more than just little bites. The tart’s crust was flakey, and the cheese and spinach were nicely balanced. The elements of the open-faced “sandwich” provided a range of flavors and textures: crunch from the bread, saltiness from the ham, sweetness from the onions, and tangy smoothness from the cheese. Both did a good job of whetting our appetites for the meal to come.
M had no complaints about his main course, Black Bass, Laughing Bird Shrimp, Carrot, ‘Hummus,’ and Tempura. In fact, he found it much to his liking as he felt all the elements – and there were many – were delicious and worked well together. Two good-sized sautéed pieces of fish were laid on a bed of the shrimp and vegetables, surrounded by a carrot sauce and generous swaths of hummus. The assemblage was crowned with several sticks of tempuraed zucchini. I tasted a bit of the fish, which was moist and flavorful.
My main course, Colorado Rack of Lamb, Rosti Potatoes, Butter Lettuce, Pickles and Tzatziki, had one outstanding element, some others which were fine, one needing improvement, and one which seemed to be m.i.a.. The star of the plate was, appropriately, the lamb. Nobody could ever accuse Chef Anderson of being skimpy with his portions. There were three very generous-sized, very meaty chops, which he had cooked exactly to my medium-rare specification. They were succulent and had wonderful lamby flavor. No complaints from me about pickled vegetables showing up again, although when I bit into the single pickled pepper – I think it was a jalapeno – I was taken about by its heat. The sautéed butter lettuce was fine as well. On the other hand, the potatoes were a problem. As I was eating them, I completely forgot that they were described as “rosti.” It was only later, when I got home and looked at the menu again that I realized what they were supposed to be. And rosti as I know it, they were not. They had a consistency more like potato latkes. However, because they were plated beneath the sautéed greens and pickled vegetables, both of which exuded liquid, the potatoes lost any crispness they might have had leaving them quite mushy. That was unfortunate because the flavor was there and had they been plated so that they remained crisp, they actually would have been, if not rosti, fine potato latkes. As for the tzatziki, if there was any, its flavor was not discernible. And with so much else happening on the plate, it probably would have been flavor overload anyway.
Desserts were the weakest part of the meal. Not bad, but not of the caliber that sent me out into the night on a dessert high.
Another witty title for the pre-dessert: “Bacon and Eggs.” When the plates were set down before us, we immediately thought of Michael Laiskonis’s super-sensational signature egg which we had at Le Bernardin in March. Except for the egg with its top cut off, “Bacon and Eggs” bore no resemblance. Layered in the egg were, first, bit of brioche French toast, then bacon-flavored egg custard, and at the top, maple-infused hot milt foam. On the side, a small square of French toast toped with a crisp strip of bacon. Certainly a playful conception containing elements that co-exist naturally together. Nice, but I’m not really into breakfast for dinner, so I didn’t love it.
We shared one dessert, Rhubarb: Cobbler, Shortcake, Mousse – straightforward descriptions of the three elements on the plate. Nothing seriously wrong with any of them but not particularly memorable. Same goes for the small assortment of mignardises.
Service throughout the evening was at a high level. Our captain, Justin, was one of those who had previously worked at the Ryland Inn. He was a professional in every way that matters: pleasant, knowledgeable about the menu, and attentive.
Before we left, we asked to if we could see the chef’s tables. The two tables are in a large alcove, as we were told, directly in front of the kitchen. Each table can accommodate four diners, and can obviously be pushed together to serve up to eight people. Chef Anderson, whose very boyish appearance belies the fact that he is in his 30’s, had changed into his street clothes. We thanked him again for his generosity and chatted for a few minutes. He said that his goal was not only to serve delicious food but to also have fun with it. M and I assured him that he had done a fine job achieving both goals, and that we looked forward to coming back. And where will you find us on that return visit? Elementary! At the chef’s table, of course!