As a graduate of Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., it is exceedingly difficult for me to admit that there may be anything of extreme excellence in Princeton, N.J. Well, I must say that there is at least one institution of excellence in that burgh and that would be Elements, the relatively new creative contemporary restaurant with Ryland Inn alumnus Scott Anderson commanding the kitchen. Elements is a restaurant that I have been wanting to dine at ever since I heard the first glowing reports from my good friends Alex and Aki. I was sorry that I had not been able to make it to either of the dinners that Alex collaborated on with Chef Anderson and determined that i would make it there as soon as i could.
That opportunity came came when I was going to be heading south to attend the Bocuse D'Or USA competition at the CIA in Hyde Park. Why not go a little early and check out Elements? Why not indeed, especially when I would be joined by Alex and two other good friends who I met through food, Shola Olunloyo of Studio Kitchen and and Linda from Playing with Fire and Water!
I drove down to Princeton on Tuesday arriving at the restaurant at 3PM, in time to get the lay of the land and say hello before driving over to Alex and Aki's. I drove back with Alex to find Shola already there. Linda, coming from Connecticut would be a little late due to train issues. Not to worry, as the three of us had a chance to observe the kitchen and chat. Once Linda arrived, we sat down and let the games begin.
Of course, we would have a tasting menu with Chef Scott Anderson and his extremely capable sous chef, Joe Sparatta, selecting our dishes. I had already observed Chef Sparatta prepare some fresh smoked steelhead roe caviar earlier that afternoon as well as break down a beautiful halibut and we saw some other delights as we waited by the kitchen. Elements, befitting its name, handles their tasting menus somewhat differently than other restaurants. Most tasting menus list the individual dishes with the components that comprise them. Not Elements. Instead of describing specific preparations, they simply list the various individual ingredients that will be found throughout the meal, a listing of the "elements" of the meal, if you will. Ours was certainly intriguing, containing abalone, hamachi, shiro dashi, porcini puree, Nantucket bay scallop, sunchokes, zone 7, tangerines, arctic char, series, chile amarillo, foie gras, chocolate, Kindai tuna, bacon & eggs, head cheese, truffle, beets, turbot, apple, house-cured steelhead roe, malt, venison, avocado, 64.5 degree egg, Kagoshima, persimmon, white soy, mackeral, sweet Maine shrimp, sucking pig and smoked maple. In the end, we did not detect all of those ingredients, but there were probably a few that had not been listed either. In either case, those that may have been omitted weren't missed as the food that was brought out made us focus on what was at hand and that was plenty and plenty good.
The first dish was scallop ceviche with pappadews and champagne vinegar. The main element of this dish was clearly the scallop. As with any good ceviche, it was bracing with a nice citrus finish. The Nantucket bay scallop was pristine and sweet. We were off to a great start! It was at this time that i also started enjoying my first cocktail.
Smoked mackeral, avocado and boquerone was a tour de force of balance and texture with a crispy outer shell. Perfect in one bite!
Salt roasted beets with a pear puree and huckleberry made for a nice bite, though ultimately it was not one of the most memorable moments of the meal, though at this point we evolved into a discussion of the state of bread service in restaurants and their role during a tasting menu. The various breads served at Elements were all delicious, but we refrained from doing more than tasting them. The consensus was that when done well as it was here and as it was done at Gilt under Paul Liebrandt and at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, bread service can very much add to a meal. Of note, Shola's meals at Studio Kitchen were notoriously absent of bread despite his love and appreciation of the product.
The tempura battered sweet Maine shrimp brought us back to our senses. This was simply eaten whole. Delicious!
The Red Rye with Rittenhouse rye, Carpano Antico vermouth, Chinese five spice, fresh pomegranate and flaming hibiscus candied ginger was another winner of a cocktail from Mattias Hagglund, though not quite as wonderful as the Maple Loch. It had a strong, but appealing finishing taste of coconut, which was most definitely not one of the ingredients. I got to taste the Carpano Antico later on. It was complex, deep and slightly bitter, a Vermouth full of character and personality.
Eaten over a discussion of different butters and butter making, the next dish was a table favorite and one of the most sensational of the evening. Resting on an eel-skin tuile, eel, rice, crispy shallot and cilantro, wasn't the most visually stimulating dish, but it did stimulate the palate with great flavor and texture. The eel-skin tuile was particularly exciting from both a conceptual and gustatory perspective. It was as satisfying and delicious an eel dish as I've ever had. Linda, "wow!… I'll take ten more of those please… I don't ever want that taste to go away!" The bite was an umami sledgehammer.
Though coming after a very difficult act to follow, herbed hamachi with apple and sesame did a creditable job leading Shola to expound on his love of hamachi collar.
Salt cod croquettes with flavors of chowder including a chowder aoili, bacon and potato combined tradition and imagination in a wonderfully comforting way. A good croquette is hard to beat and this was a good croquette. While it was billed as having bacon flavors, I tasted smoke more than bacon. The dish led to a discussion on the national origins of croquettes or croquetas. Since my mother made croquettes, I grew up thinking that they like a potato and egg omelet were Italian. Of course, Naples used to be part of Spain, which is where that tradition came from for me. But then, what about the French? Using the wonders of modern technology, Alex googled it and for the moment determined that the croquette was indeed a French invention.
Chicken and foie gras terrine with pomme puree had great flavor, though mine was a tad salty for me. The preparation reminded me of Alex & Shola's "Chicken Marsala
" While the preparations were entirely different, both involved using chicken in a forcemeat role. At this point, we entered into a discussion of small plate dining. Our consensus was that there is a time and place for it (such as this time and place) and that small plate dining and large plate dining are not mutually exclusive.
64.5º egg with cauliflower puree appeared pedestrian on first look, but was considered "sensational!" with great flavor, texture concept – a great homage to Arpege. It was at this point that we were presented with our "menus" with the explanation of its meaning and the statement, "Now that we are actually beginning the meal…"