elements (Princeton, NJ) – Explorations

Unique ingredients are the initial allure of elements. But there is more. Chef Scott Anderson can craft tasting menus that introduce the new, present the familiar as novelty, or concoct different flavor from the known. He weaves a few popular narratives – farm and forage, cure and ferment, whole animal and plant – into his own brand of “interpretive American cuisine.” But, perhaps more apt, as DocSconz wrote, it is better described as an “interpreter of the moment“, albeit one that rode those waves before they broke.1 Exploration is at the heart of elements and drives it to be one of America’s better restaurants.

poached egg, salsify, beet puree, carrots

Rarities like Kindai tuna and mangalitsa hogs popped up on the elements menu before they became more widespread. Here, glass eels,2 Kindai shima-aji, and Duroc pork provided sustainable and heritage protein options. Something new could only be one course away. Cilantro and wild onion flowers packed powerful seasoning despite a minimal presence on the plate.

And sometimes, it’s not the ingredient, but the experiments in form that make the food exciting. Wagyu is usually aged minimally by American standards because the fat turns rancid but here it was aged for over three months and cured nearly as long – beef ‘ham.’ Whipped mangalitsa lard, sweet in itself, filled the inside of a macaron, and it seemed so appropriate following the five-month mangalitsa lomo course. A 40-day dry-aged duck was paired with tobacco and mustard in a tartar – intensity.

seaweed, oyster in its own shell, monkfish liver

Since my last meal three years ago, the restaurant has matured. There is less focus on brash combinations and perhaps more concentration on harmony. Ingredients have been pared down. Space, or pause, is effectively used to focus on particularly indulgent or complex tastes. Working largely outside of the press, a short train ride away from New York City, elements has refined their approach. It was a good restaurant. Now it is great.3

This was a special meal arranged in advance. Knowing it would be my last trip to the area for awhile, I invited nearby Ideas in Food and DocSconz to the party. We are all known to Chef Scott Anderson; Ideas in Food has even cooked with him many times. This meal is not the norm for elements; but anything can happen if you book the chef’s table. Yes, we paid the bill. And DocSconz took some incredible photos that are really worth seeing.

japanese ice fish tempura, shirako

glass eels, curly cress, trout roe

The beginning courses took us to Anderson’s childhood and reference point for cuisine – Japan. Textbook tempura – equal to Michelin-starred tempura from Tokyo. Light as a pillow, sweet as candy.

Dubbed “Noodles of the sea” by the table, the glass eels demonstrated how the elements team deconstructs Japanese into their own brand of New Jersey, with perfect callibration. The roe popped salinity, mixed with spicy inflections of cress and horseradish cream, as the eels were slurped down. Excellent use of texture – pop, the slight rough of the cress, a few bits of nori, and the silkiness of the eels. In many ways, it exemplified elements’ cooking – unique ingredients, house-curing, and foraged bits.

Sunchoke ceviche reversed the traditional notion with a fish puree supporting the earthy vegetable. Roasted tomatillo punctuated with spice but lent a smoky background note. Miscellaneous freshwater plants, “duck food”, added texture and greenery. It nailed the essence of ceviche with new ingredient combinations. And it was also my favorite dish of the night – superb.

sunchoke ceviche, shima-aji puree

sashimi of kindai shima-aji parts, asian pear, turnip, cilantro flower

After a volley of dishes, the Kindai toro course sat near-naked, barely adorned. The long pause – where the apparent simplicity of the plate beguiles the complexity of flavor. Rich, fatty toro coated the mouth with its luxurious hints of the sea. Simple flowers – nasturtium, buddha’s hand and pink lemon – brightened. This was the menu taking a minute to slow down and savor some of the most precious meat in the world – an ebb in the flow.4

kindai toro tartar, chu-toro tataki, cured otoro

house-made kimchi, beef tongue, honey mussels, cilantro

pacific herring milt, pacific herring, cider

japanese bluefish, fingerling sweet potato, wild onion flower, poached in pork jus

With fish, there is also an affinity for the hog. They get much love – heritage breeds, hams, charcuterie, and the love of lardo. Always the love of lardo. The mangalitsa lomo was hung for five months, simply laid on the plate, with the earthy tang of the trumpet royal vinaigrette. More controversial, the whipped lard macarons had an enjoyable chew and sweetness. But it was the fat that glazed the mouth that made it delectable. Others at the table were not as crazy about them.

The milk-fed Duroc had been killed a few days earlier and its flavor is what you might imagine real pork to be, before the industrial age. Neither too lean nor fatty, it just had a very clean pork taste.

mangalitsa lomo (hung in oct – this was feb), trumpet royal vinaigrette

kimchi, black pepper macarons, whipped mangalitsa lard

milk-fed duroc pork, veal sweetbreads, hazelnut puree, smoked butter, served w/ tea from bones

And then the dark meat.

Since my last visit, elements has begun aging their meats and experimenting with fermentation and curing too. The meat dishes are tighter than that last visit, with less extraneous ingredients. Duck was sparsely plated but packed with flavor. A duck katsuobushi had smoky herbaceous notes and rich mouthfeel while the 40-day tartar was intense.

The ribeye ‘ham’ was a pause course – hints of complex blue cheese notes and a sweet, melting fat. In many ways, it was the essence of beef. Which made the final composed course, dry-aged wagyu with dried main sweet shrimp, a final umami punch of glutamate. In an ideal world, the ham would have been the perfect ending – a savory, soft landing.

21-day aged roast duck breast, 40-day duck tartar, duck liver pate w/ apple cider bread, duck katsuobushi

85-day dry-aged & cured wagyu ribeye, emulsified wagyu fat

110-day dry-aged wagyu, dried maine sweet shrimp, beef jus, tonburri

whey & absinthe, tarragon, chevril, sugar, anise hyssop

hoja santa ice cream, japanese sweet potato & white chocolate puree, barley, mezcal, rose, thyme

A train ride, a short walk, and yet it is a million miles from the big city. It may lack the three-star sheen of New York’s finest but more chances are taken here – especially with product. Some dishes might be a touch too busy, a few too many ingredients competing for attention, but the food is honing in on a distinctive style – a Japanese respect for ingredient mixed with the surrounding bounty of New Jersey. It is the ideal of so many restaurants today; perhaps because it got a head start several years ago. The elements logo is tattoo’d on Anderson’s wrist – a permanent history5 – and hopefully that means he will be in Princeton 6 for a long time.

- chuck

1 – DocSconz says it best on his blog post about the same meal:

but it is not so much a trend setter as it is a stellar interpreter of the moment. While Ferran and Albert Adria created Vanguardist cooking, Rene Redzepi made foraging respectable, Dan Barber brought the farm to the fine dining table and Sean Brock has made the South rise again, Anderson has been a master of exploring those styles and more and distilling them into his own compound vision. A meal at Elements right now is a meal that fuses all the current dining trends into a unique combination. An approach like this could easily lead to a convoluted disaster of a meal, but Anderson, Ryan and the rest of the Elements team manages to keep it all together and create a meal that, though interpretive and reflective of today’s food trends, still remains original and creative. For a snapshot of contemporary fine dining trends in one place at one time, I would be hard-pressed to think of a restaurant better than Elements.

2 – I’ve always missed their season when traveling to San Sebastian. What a fascinating journey these little guys take! Visiting Etxebarri when elvers are in season would be a culinary jackpot.

3 – This reminds me of the exact trajectory of another restaurant – McCrady’s. My first meal there was very good but the dishes that stood out were the more ingredient-focused. Fast-forward four years: Husk is the (amazing) realization of that McCrady’s meal; and McCrady’s, well, you’ll have to wait a few more weeks for that review. elements is already destination-worthy but if Anderson can continue the momentum, you will be reading about it in the national media too.

4 – An entire menu of such courses might be the culinary equivalent of shoe-gaze. Top-grade nigiri has the same quality but it usually gets served in rapid-fire succession. The best margherita pizza, such as one by Una Pizza or Don Antonio, also invokes a similar reaction – but it gets too cold when contemplated too long!

5 – Anyone interested in tattoos, the maps they might draw, and the worlds they decode, should read Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia volumes 1 – 3. It is a fascinating study of a system of symbols and the role they play in a class of people. Beware too – it is highly offensive. If you want a first printing of Vol 1, which is quite rare, I might part with it if you buy me dinner at Saison.

elements is here to stay

6 – If visiting Princeton, I would also recommend The Bent Spoon – very good ice cream with great texture.

  • John Sconzo

    Your reports are always worth waiting for and always have amazing insights. Thanks for the plugs. 

  • sygyzy

    Amazing looking meal and report. Thanks Chuck.

  • Manda Bear

    Follow your review, I’m
    Excited to try his food at @AtelierCrenn next week! Look at Elements menu, it’s so reasonable, and so beautiful as well as how delicious for you! Thank you for sharing!