An extraordinary dining experience at this “important” newcomer in Princeton

by Brian Freedman
Photograph by Jody Robinson

I have a thing for quail eggs, and I mean “thing” in the same way that love-struck teenagers use it to describe the object of their swooning affection. As a result of that deep-seated adoration, I order them whenever they appear on a menu, and, perhaps inevitably, I end up comparing that particular quail egg with every previous one I’ve ever had, which, expectedly, leads me to often be disappointed by the very nibble that I love so deeply. In the world of a food writer, at least, it’s a culinary paradox of epic proportions.

So when our first amuse-bouche arrived at elements, the increasingly buzzed-about restaurant in Princeton, I was, initially, struck by a bolt of nervousness: How would this quail egg compare? Sure, a troika of them arrived dramatically cosseted in a gorgeous bird’s nest, nestled in the center as if they were the cooling core of a long-ago supernova. But how would it hold up to all the quail eggs of personal memory?

And then I took a bite. I’m pretty sure I passed out for a moment. How had so much flavor, so much character, been packed into this innocent-looking mini-egg? At first it hit me with a deeply savory yet unexpectedly toned-up sense of tangy, vaguely wine-like earthiness. This eased into a deeper, equally soul-comforting smokiness that lingered on my tongue like the finish of a great glass of mature wine.

Turns out that this sort of experience would happen throughout the meal, a tour-de-force that stands up as one of the most extraordinary dining experiences I’ve enjoyed in the past year.

I’d heard the buzz, of course—what executive chef and co-owner Scott Anderson, chef de cuisine Mike Ryan, and their team of visionaries in the kitchen have been turning out since moving to the lovely, loft-like second-floor space above Mistral less than a year ago has slowly yet inexorably been gathering steam, with a propulsion of positive reviews and even more exuberant word of mouth inching it forward. So when their publicist emailed me and invited me in to check it out for myself, of course I said yes. There was, as always, a caveat: Whenever I’m invited in as a guest, I cannot ethically review the restaurant. But I said that I’d check it out for a feature story on the restaurant, figuring that, even if I didn’t love the meal, there was at least an interesting story there regardless.

I had nothing to worry about: It was love at first bite. Because elements (the name is not capitalized), from its perch in downtown Princeton, has managed to find that proverbial razor’s-edge balance between the avant-garde and the comforting, successfully tapping into many of the key components that are defining our current culinary zeitgeist—a respect for seasonality, a focus on pristine ingredients, a willingness to employ modern technique yet never as an end in and of itself, but rather as a means to one—without falling victim to its many potential pitfalls. Nothing feels contrived here, in other words, which began to make perfect sense once I asked Chef Anderson about it.

“It’s the cuisine of what we’re doing, of the day and of the week, and it’s hard to put words to describe that,” he told me. “Personally, I don’t even know myself. It’s just an expression of what we do. I don’t know how to categorize it. … It’s just what we do.”

In light of the meal itself, his comments make perfect sense. Because dish after dish seemed to have sprung from a team of culinary minds electric with ideas, able to turn excellent ingredients into unexpected and highly rewarding dishes that I’m still thinking about well after actually having eaten them. Australian Wagyu beef, cooked sous vide to dizzying tenderness, found its perfect accompaniment with a maitake mushroom that both echoed the buttery meat’s richness and cut through it at the same time. The insanely tender snow crab’s inherent sweetness pushed up against the soulfulness of a mustard-kissed chicken jus and an emulsified crab-stock sauce as evocative as any I’ve ever tasted. A dessert of chocolate ganache practically vibrated with paprika. And more. So much more.

Pairing all of this with wine could cause major problems for a lesser wine director than Carl Harrison Rohrbach, but the list that he has created is full of bottles and glasses, from classics to far lesser-known gems, that provide him the perfect starting point from which to discern combinations with the food that elevate both.

A night at elements, then, is worth the trip no matter where in the region you live. I’d just book your table sooner rather than later. With only 28 seats, reservations are sure to become ever more difficult to score as word gets out not just how enjoyable an experience a dinner at elements is, but how important a restaurant it’s becoming. The food is cerebral yet sensual, wildly delicious and served in a setting casual and sophisticated yet comfortable and intimate; the dishes are even delivered to the table by members of the kitchen team.

Get a reservation while you can. I have a sneaking suspicion that, as elements’ reputation grows, it will get more and more difficult to do so. And justifiably so.