August 19, 2009
Steven Distler is a Princeton businessman with some time and money on his hands. He has used them well in creating Elements. First he bought an old auto repair garage on the outskirts of Princeton and converted it into a modern restaurant. To avoid problems with the planning commission he used the same footprint. You can still see the garage outlines if you look for them. Then he asked his Princeton wine merchant where he could find a chef. He ended up with a whole team from New Jersey’s well-regarded, but defunct, Ryland Inn. Elements opened in October, 2008, serving “Interpretative American Cuisine.”
Scott Anderson is the chef. His short career has been entirely in New Jersey. He has learned his skills on the job, which helps account for his creativity. He is dedicated to using New Jersey products whenever possible, but he seeks out high quality, ecologically friendly products from all over.
On August 16, 2009, Laura, Linda, Dennis and I went to Elements for an early dinner.
We were seated at a table in the sparely, but nicely, decorated dining room. There is also a private dining room upstairs, a seating area behind the bar in the entryway next to the kitchen and the eight-place “chef’s table,” which is practically in the kitchen. Music was playing when we arrived; it was turned down at our request and then turned off entirely when most of the tables were full. I imagine that the noise level could get quite high if there are energetic business or celebration dinners, but we didn’t have a problem. The high ceilings of the former garage, the soft walls and the fabrics which cover the three big windows where garage bay doors once opened help.
There was an attractive à la carte menu with a wide variety. There was also a six-course “Summer Tasting Menu” at $75, $120 with wine pairings. Those who have reserved at the chef’s table get a nine-course tasting menu for $95.
We ordered the tasting menu without the pairings. The wine list is quite varied and interesting, but confusing. We found and ordered a 2007 quinta do monte d’oiro madrigal viognier, estremadura and a 2007 evening land vineyards seven springs vineyard, eola-amity hills, oregon, pinot noir. This was my first Spanish Viognier; it was pleasant, but unassertive. The Pinot Noir was what you would expect of a good Oregon Pinot.
A five part amuse-bouche arrived:
tomato tartare, tuna tartare, laughing bird shrimp with Serrano ham, beet salad, melon soup
These were really excellent, an indication of things to come.
We then received an extra from the chef:
mangalitsa pig charcuterie plate
housemade pates, wursts, mustards, crackers
Elements had a special Mangalitsa dinner earlier in the week and this must have been a followup. They had received one of these fatty, wooly, tasty Hungarian pigs a month before the dinner to be made into charcuterie. Another arrived two days before the dinner for fresh preparations. They come from the Mosefund Farm in New Jersey. The various preparations had a good fresh, porky flavor, but I thought some were lacking in seasoning or smokiness. For me the standard of fresh American charcuterie is McCrady’s in Charleston. This was not up to that level, but I am sure that Elements is still learning.
yogurt, nectarine, smoked trout roe
This bluefin tuna is farmed offshore of Japan or Hawaii and is ecologically correct. It had a very pale color and a nice flavor that needed to be brought out by the unusual garnish.
ancho, smoked agave, zucchini, jalapeño
The sweetbreads had been crisply deepfried in a sweet and sour batter. They were on top of a mild, creamy zucchini purée and garnished with thin jalapeño slices. The flavors were quite surprising, not at all what I associate with sweetbreads, but the combination worked well, except with the wine.
lamb bacon, fava beans, mint, grana padano
This course had a much more conventional treatment. Although some of the ingredients were unusual for a pasta dish, the effect was almost like good comfort food.
jersey corn, tomatillo, avocado, potato
This was a superb piece of beef. It comes from Painted Hills Farm in Oregon, which specializes in “wholesome ranching.” Although finished on grain after a start in the pasture, this tasted like grass fed beef to me, but more tender. Hanger steak is a neglected cut in the US. We know it in France as onglet. The vegetables all went well in the background.
trio of valley shepherd cheeses
The Valley Shepherd Farm in New Jersey has a large flock of sheep. Their milk is used to make a wide variety of cheeses. We were served three which were quite different, but all good.
“bacon and eggs”
Layered inside the egg were: brioche custard, bacon-flavored custard, and at the top, smoked maple-infused hot milk foam. The small brioche French toast was topped with a strip of bacon and maple syrup. Fun.
souffle, chocolate “air”, sorbet
This dessert off the à la carte menu was served to us instead of the ‘kit kat’ on our Tasting Menu. The dark chocolat flavor was strong and nice, but the dessert lacked complexity and finesse. We were also given one ‘kit kat’ to share. I perferred it.
gianduja, hazelnut, ‘crunch,’ milk chocolate
We finished with nice crunchy mignardises.
We had a very enjoyable evening. The cuisine was always interesting and true to its mission of using fresh, ecologically sound products. The portions were just right for a tasting menu. The service was excellent; the pace was good. Our waiter, Justin, was exceptional in his knowledge of the food, his understandable descriptions, explanations and answers, his wine service and his general cheerfulness. The owner, the chef and the sous-chef all came over to our table. But we must keep things in perspective; this is a $75 menu. There was no foie gras, lobster, etc. My frame of reference would be different if I were paying the prices well into three figures that one pays for a tasting menu at top restaurants in Manhattan or in the San Francisco area. Princeton may be very sophisticated in some ways, but academia is not known for its culinary interests. I was reminded of McCrady’s, where the chef’s talents are not usually on display (except for the charcuterie) for lack of community interest. This has not happened at Elements, and I hope that it never will. The backing of Mr. Distler may make a big difference. The talents and enthusiasm of Scott Anderson and the Sparattas will also be decisive. For now Elements provides a fine dining experience.
The restaurant’s website: