Review: Scott Anderson Brings Elements Back to Princeton

By Teresa Politano | For Inside Jersey

Source: http://www.nj.com/inside-jersey/index.ssf/2016/03/review_scott_anderson_brings_elements_back_to_princeton.html#incart_river_index

AT THE BAR, the ice for the cocktails is hand-cut into fat cubes for a slow melt and a 20-something mixology nerd sits in the corner, contemplating the careful construction of his drink. Two women discuss isolationism over a plate of Fanny Bay oysters, which, with those gorgeously fluted shells and a spark of spiced kohlrabi, create a regal presentation. A man with bright eyes and a gray ponytail shares a story from PBS. The barfly himself, protective of his favored retreat, offers a pre-dinner briefing: The food upstairs is challenging.

Challenging is not the word he wants. Nor is his next description, edgy, the right word. But you can forgive his effort, for Scott Anderson‘s food, complex and grown-up and sexily so, has long been difficult to neatly categorize, and equally difficult to deconstruct and explain to others. Anderson’s food is also high-end art and precise science, an intellectual construct of ingredients and techniques, layered with, say, juniper or foraged mushrooms for texture and intrigue.

Dinner at elements in Princeton is the kind of experience that either leaves people speechless or encourages them to excessively analyze and pontificate.

In simple terms, a dinner at elements is this: Mannered. Urbane. Clever. Luxuriant. Restrained. Also, playful. Also, emotional.

But the guy at the bar did get one thing right. You don’t have to get it to get it.

After elements originally opened in 2008 on Bayard Lane, it almost immediately became one of the most important restaurants in the state, a dynamic rebuke of the misfortune of timing it during the recession.

Anderson, an introverted perfectionist, has become a leading chef in the modernist cuisine movement; his precise attention to the science of cooking earned the attention of Nathan Myhrvold, the former Microsoft tech guru who wrote a $625 book on the art and science of cooking. Anderson also has been
recognized by the James Beard Foundation as a semi-finalist for Best Mid-Atlantic Chef in 2015, 2014 and 2013.

Anderson makes presentations to Princeton University doctoral candidates, invites other chef innovators from across the country to share space in his restaurant for collaborative dinners and likes to say that he uses the computer as often as he uses the stove. He fills his social media accounts with photos of cigars he likes and mushrooms he’s foraged, and, every so often, he adds another inspirational tattoo to his collection of body ink.

Anderson also opened Mistral, a globally inspired small plates restaurant in downtown Princeton. Now, he’s relocated elements to share the space. The fine dining spot is upstairs, the bar and tapas restaurant downstairs.

The new space has just 28 seats and only serves dinner. Anderson calls it his retirement plan, this ability to work fewer than 18 hours a day, seven days a week.

In reality? There is focus and there is drive. This is another level entirely.

The restaurant serves a weeknight four-course tasting menu for $79, a Saturday five-course tasting menu for $99, a chef’s tasting for $125 and a grand tasting for $185. Each are complemented with the option of beverage pairings.

Elements also embraces the entirely unorthodox practice of having the kitchen staff serve the food. The goal is a more intimate experience for both guest and cook. The choreography works, thanks to precise planning, which includes staggered reservations. A 20 percent “guest experience” is added to the bill.

Many of the cooks are female, also unusual. Anderson prefers it. “They’re tougher than male cooks.”

Other restaurants that intellectualize the culinary process usually suffer in their zealotry; food becomes fetish, science becomes paramount. At elements, the food is definitely intellectualized, the precision and the science nearly palpable enough to pick up with your fingers, but this is not a “look what I can do”
World’s Fair of food. At elements, it’s a celebration, and although Anderson seems intent on opening all the books in the library and sharing every esoteric ingredient on the planet, you’ll have a grand time eating it, too.

His menu is ever-changing, micro-seasonal and delightfully unpredictable. A delineation of the experience is best scrutinized not by specifics, but by themes.

First, Anderson loves eggs and likes to experiment.

The quail egg amuse-bouche is a mesmerizing example. Two cooked quail eggs are marinated in wine lees (the residuals after fermentation), then smoked. The eggs are brought to the table in a nest, and already you’re thinking it’s too precious, too Etsy hipster. Stop.

The egg is a miracle. It’s creamy and sweet, and smoky and warm. The white is cooked and the yolk is nearly syrup, and you’re surprised and delighted, and too quickly it’s gone.

This recipe was developed by chef de cuisine Michael Ryan, who has worked with Anderson for more than a decade (“We understand each other,” Ryan says.) and who used to source the wine lees from California but then discovered the lees ofUnionville Vineyards in Ringoes (with the bonus of a reduced
carbon footprint).

In explaining the process, Ryan talks, in one breath, about a precise water bath of 64.5 degrees Celsius, and, in another, how the smoky finish is done over the kitchen hearth. He’ll tell you the tiniest mistake in the time-consuming procedure will change everything. And he’ll tell you this:

“It’s just an egg, when you come down to it.” You end up loving it more.

Anderson also likes to surprise you with amazing, lesser-known spices. The Szechuan peppercorn is the lingering swan song of the hamachi dish, wherein the water buffalo yogurt, already heightened by sumac and rosemary, is dusted with a bit of Szechuan peppercorn. Which reminds you of pepper, but not quite,
or anise, but not quite, but which Anderson describes as having a numbing effect.

Anderson loves seafood and applies a Japanese philosophy: fresh and as simple as possible. For example, the hamachi is not served super cold, as is usual with sushi, but smoked for a few minutes over the grill, for the fat to melt a bit and to better complement the yogurt.

Anderson grew up in Japan. Thus, ramen, which must have been good, because it was gone before even one bite was shared.

As for meat? A certain amount of fat is necessary; Anderson is not fond of 100 percent grass-fed beef. “If I wanted lean beef, I’ll just get vension.” Thus, the Australian rib-eye, which was the standout dish among standout dishes, silky and tender and finished over a charcoal grill, served with crispy leeks for a
delicate pop of texture.

Anderson also loves to celebrate the heritage of the region. Thus, the astonishingly luxuriant venison tartare, with celery, juniper and bergamot, which reads Pilgrim but tastes Paris.

And thus, pheasant, which, if your pheasant repertoire is limited, Anderson will help, categorizing the meat as very good “chicken.” “Chickens of the Old World, before they got into the hands of the wrong people.” More dark and mysterious.

But this particular interpretation was not as elevated as some other dishes and its hominy “risotto” was soupy and starchy.

Desserts have deceptively simple names. “Vermouth.” “Chocolate.” The former features a quenelle of frozen custard, vermouth-flavored, an after-dinner drink as whipped froth, served with buckwheat, hazelnut and fennel. “Chocolate,” with chocolate and almond, is inspired by the Almond Joy, but that’s like saying Sarah Burton’s creations are inspired by street fashion.

If the whole thing — the cooks as servers, the quail eggs, the Szechuan peppercorn — seems too radical for you or your mother-in-law, do yourself a favor and dip your toes in at the bar. Have an artisanal cocktail, made with Laird’s Applejack. Suck down a few of those fat Fanny Bay oysters ($3
each), spread some addictive flax crackers with rich, smoked bluefish ($8). Or try the buckwheat short stack with Époisses ($15), a sleeper and a standout, remarkable enough to generate a discussion.

You’ll be amused by the remark of the bartender, who will ask, graciously and with no irony, “Are you familiar with Époisses?” As if we all should be aware of a cheese made in a French town, with a population of about 800.

Actually, we all should be aware of a cheese made in a French town, with a population of about 800. Thank Anderson for that, too.

The guy at the bar is also right, that this is one of the best restaurants in the country. But you knew that already. It is a privilege to dine here.