Kevin Sbraga is a chef who I have been following since well before he won last year’s (2010) competition on Bravo TV’s Top Chef, but who’s food until last week I’d never had the opportunity to try. So when I discovered that he would be cooking at one of my favorite restaurants, Elements, alongside Chef Scott Anderson, at a time when I could actually make it there, I grabbed my wife and we jumped in the car.
We arrived a touch before our 7:15PM reservation, which, fortunately, gave us time to spend a few minutes at the bar with Mattias Hagglund, one of the most successfully creative bartenders I know. Along with a nice chat, my wife and I sipped on a couple of his wonderful creations. Mine was a “Spirit of Summer” that included Darnley’s View gin, Esprit de June, a floral French liqueur made from wine grape and other flowers, Aperol, peach and lime. My wife had the “Will Rush Special” with Thai spiced tequila, house made tonic and lime. Both were superb. Even if the food at Elements wasn’t as excellent as it is, the place would still be worth going out of one’s way for just for Mr. Hagglund’s cocktails.
The menu offered two paired beverage options, a regular at $55 and a Premium at $85. My wife and I split a premium pairing once we finished our initial cocktails.The first course was a trio of tartares with peach with hazelnut, tomato wrapped with a “baguette” and tuna tartare wrapped in shiso leaf. This was an interesting and tasty approach to showcasing a variety of “tartares,” all while excluding the original tartare – beef. The addition of hazelnut to the peach flattened the overt sweetness of the peach, keeping the morsel distinctly in the savory camp when it easily could have been too sweet on its own. The tomato tartare nestled in the crisped bread was simple, but the quality of the tomatos made it wonderful. The tuna, big-eye fished from New Jersey waters was a delightful bite. The course was paired with another delightful cocktail from Hagglund called “Our Garden Bellini” which contained peach, Varnet sparkling wine and house made hissop syrup.
A non-menu item was brought out while we were still enjoying the tartares. Fried padrone and shishito peppers are always fun.
The label may have been beaten up, but the wine wasn’t. The 2009 Chablis from Gilbert Picq was crisp and mineral rich as a good Chablis should be.
When I saw that there would be a dish featuring blue crab at this dinner, I really knew I wanted to be here. Scott Anderson was in charge of the seafood dishes for this dinner and he is no slouch, having recently won the New Jersey Seafood Cook-Off , while also taking a 3rd place finish at the national Great American Seafood Cook-Off in New Orleans this past Saturday. This dish didn’t disappoint. The delicate crab remained the centerpiece of this dish with fine, subtle and balanced support from three types of cucumbers and cherry tomatoes with their skins pulled back and crisped. The dish displayed an appropriately light and delicate touch, a marvelous summer dish. The Chablis provided the perfect pairing.
We received another off-menu bit: grilled canteloupe with sea bass sashimi with radish micro-greens and a yuzu-kosho vinaigrette. Once again, this was a pleasant interlude.
I was curious to see a beer as part of the Premium pairing. This one was a pale ale from Stone Brewing Company in San Diego, California.
The pairing lived up to its place. The herbaceous quality of the beer matched beautifully with the Jersey caught bigeye tuna with green tomato mole verde, beans, sweet onion and masa harina. This was the dish of the night and was good enough to be the dish of many a fine dining night. The tuna was impeccable, but the real star of the show was the green tomato mole verde. Despite the fact that this dish was neither a traditional Mexican dish nor looked like a “Mexican” dish, the flavors were totally evocative of some of the best of that wonderful culinary tradition. Each component worked in absolute harmony and each bite showed new layers of flavor. I am salivating just thinking about this dish over a week after I ate it. While the dish featured the tuna, I think it would have been equally as delicious with a good quality piece of whatever protein one wanted to use.
The Griggstown baby pheasant was moist and well prepared. It’s accompaniments of purslane, pheasant bolognese and a housemade tortellino provided support and contrast. The tortellini, though filled with yogurt, also came with a bit of a bite from garlic and chili peppers. It was here that the wine really excelled, as it cut nicely through the spice without losing any of its own depth and flavor. The bolognese provide an underlying flavor kick that brought everything together.
The funny thing about this next dish was that my wife, an eggplant lover, was less enthusiastic than I was about it. Served with Northern African flavors in a spelt and cauliflower tabouli with husk cherries, she was not a fan of the texture of the eggplant, which had been halved and baked, nor a fan of that particular spice combination. The irony was that I’m not a particularly big fan of eggplant, primarily because of its texture, but I liked the texture of this eggplant. I also very much enjoy North African spicing. In fact, I wouldn’t have minded it having been even more aggressively spiced than it was, though it was fine as it was. One element I noticed throughout the meal was that neither chef made a major point of using extremes of textural contrast in their dishes. That is not to say that there wasn’t contrast. Rather, it the contrasts were subtle enough that it seemed as if there was not a conscious effort to highlight that. Once again, there was a strong wine pairing.
The 2006 Lillian Syrah was made in Oregon with grapes from California. Though I typically prefer wines grown and made at a winery, for romantic and potential environmental issues alone, this wine had great depth of flavor and body and worked well with the spice-inflected eggplant.
A Chateauneuf-du-pape was just the right thing for the next course and this one was classic with a little age to it. 70 Grenache, 20% Syrah and 10% Mourvedre, this was a big bruiser of a wine with 15% alcohol. Too much alcohol for me for extended drinking, it still had enough acid and fruit to provide a nice complement to the meat course.
Chef Kevin Sbraga’s baby goat was full of flavor and tender, unlike some goat preparations I’ve had. The kid from Piping Goat Farm was served with blueberry-coriander jam, turnip, granola and almond with the granola and almond adding a bit more textural contrast than most of the dishes of this meal. The savory Blueberry-coriander jam was a nice touch and a good segue into dessert.
Desserts were made by Chef Sbraga’s wife, Jesmary. Her talents were clearly evident. The Coconut Blanc Manger with marinated Alpine Strawberries was nicely minimalist in presentation, but not in flavor and deliciousness. Sweet, but not too sweet, it hit the spot.
Though not really or completely a wine, the Barolo Chinato from Cocchi was paired with the final dessert. Playing double duty as a pairing for the dessert and as a digestif, this bittersweet beverage is a 30 year old Barolo that had ben blended with quinine and ginger and reminded me of a Vermouth.
The Cherry Coke Float brought me back to my childhood. I enjoyed the textural contrasts between the cola granito, the vanilla ice cream, marinated cherries and a puff pastry that extended off the plate.
Elements is a fine restaurant. Chef Scott Anderson and his team do a great job sourcing from the best local and regional farms of the southern Garden State, the local sea and beyond. They have been at the forefront of sourcing some of the more interesting products to have come along in recent years including Kindai tuna and Mangalitsa pig. The latter ingredient, now served at some of the best and some of the trendiest restaurants was served there before I ever noticed it on other menus. Chef Anderson and his team, which for this night, anyway, also included Alex Talbot of Ideas in Food, again did an outstanding job finding top notch product and using it creatively and well. Chef Sbraga, his wife, Jesmary, and the rest of their team also did an outstanding job. This was a dinner well worth traveling to (Elements is even without a special menu), especially for a chance to try Chef Sbraga’s cooking as well as an opportunity to return to see what Chef Anderson and his team have been up to. The next team I expect I’ll be seeing Kevin Sbraga, it will likely be at his upcoming Philadelphia restaurant, Sbraga, slated to open this fall. I’m looking forward to it!