Elements, Princeton, NJ

Recently, I needed to make a quick jaunt to New York. I decided to make the trip have purpose, so I themed it, “2015 New Jersey James Beard Award Semifinalists,” making it a point to go to every single restaurant in New Jersey that was nominated for some type of James Beard Award in 2015. There was only one exception, and it was a Hoboken restaurant that would have been too much trouble to fit in.

My first stop was in Princeton, NJ, which, I realized, I had never before set foot in. I knew absolutely nothing about Elements before having arrived at the restaurant, and had no preconceived expectations. When I left the restaurant, I realized that I’d had my first Michelin 2-star-quality dining experience in (I’m embarrassed to say) a couple of years. I have been to many, many 1-star, 2-star, and 3-star Michelin restaurants both here and abroad, and there are very obvious differences – both qualitative and quantitative – between the levels (which, by the way, are often wrong, but that’s besides the point – I know what they’re *supposed* to be). Elements is a *nine-table* (yes, 9 table) jewel box which sits atop another restaurant – Mistral – having the same ownership. This is a *perfect* set-up to maximize the quality of two separate and distinct restaurants. If you visit Mistral’s website, you might say to yourself, ‘This place looks *fantastic*,’ and you’d almost surely be correct.

The Elements diner actually walks into Mistral and arrives at the host stand – in fact, my first overall impression was the only lesser experience of the evening, because I waited at an empty host stand – a very nice-looking bar looming behind it – not really knowing what to do, for about a minute (which, under the circumstances, can seem like the seconds are ticking in slow motion), and when the cordial hostess arrived and greeted me, I told her I had a reservation at Elements. At that precise moment, it was as if a Four-Star General had appeared in an officer’s dining hall: She immediately took on a different countenance – not in a way that downplays the importance of Mistral’s diners, but in a way that signaled to me that I had just been vaulted into VIP status – in a way that told me she instantly recognized that I had come to dine, and to dine well. Recall that, at this time, I still had no idea what the restaurant was, or what it was about – and yet, it was very clear to me what had just happened.

She escorted me over to a private elevator, summoned it, pushed the button for the second floor, and told me I’d see another host stand when I arrived, wishing me a pleasant meal just before the doors closed.

A few seconds later, the doors opened onto an entirely new atmosphere – one of a much more serious nature than the convivial Mistral down below. This was not unlike being escorted into a high-stakes baccarat den that is cordoned off from the everyday guests playing mere hundred-dollar games. Make no mistake about it: those hundred-dollar games down below are what’s going to keep this restaurant in business, and they are deeply and genuinely appreciated by the staff (as I was to later find out). Downstairs is Jean-Georges’ Nougatine, without which Jean-Georges might no longer exist.

I was struck by the sheer emptiness of the room, after having witnessed the joyous vibrancy down below – the two spaces must be similar in size, given the shape of the building itself, and yet, here was an almost completely deserted room, with a total of *nine tables* (actually, eight, since two had been joined together for a larger party), a tiny welcoming area, and a state-of-the-art, open kitchen off to the back-right which had more cooks than the room had diners. I was led to a back table which afforded me magnificent views of the entire dining room, as well as the open kitchen, now on my left. I felt like a king.

One thing I found out is that Elements had been open before, in another location, and had only been open in this new space – on top of Mistral – for a couple of weeks. The previous iteration was a few blocks away, and I have no idea of what it was like; all that matters now is that – whatever they did to change things – this new location is set up in a way that seems to approach perfection (and I’m just talking about the actual set-up) – everything is within a twenty-second walk of everything else. My guess is that if you have not been to the “new” Elements, then you have not been to Elements. This restaurant is not a “James Beard Semifinalist”; assuming they don’t change things, this restaurant is a future regional winner, with probable future consideration for a national award.

It became readily obvious that diner service is paramount at Elements. I was presented with my choice of still or sparkling water, and was immediately asked if I’d care for a cocktail before dinner. I had been presented with three different dining menus and a wine list. The first menu was available only on weeknights, and was a four-course prix-fixe for $79. If you only remember one thing from this write-up, please make it this: don’t get this menu. Even if you go on a Wednesday night (which I did), you will be cheating only yourself if you don’t get one of the other two menus: either the Chef’s Tasting Menu for $125, or the Grand Tasting for $185. The reason is simple: the dishes on the weeknight four-course are much-less complex and less labor-intensive than they are in the two tasting menus. You’d be getting, for example, Tomato Soup with sourdough, basil, and pecorino – I’m sure it’s very nice, but there’s nothing even remotely resembling that on either of the two tasting menus – if you’re taking the trouble to come all the way up here, and drop fairly large money anyway, do yourself a favor and spend the extra fifty dollars – it’s the only way to give this restaurant a fair chance to match my rather bold statements here.

I opted for the smaller Chef’s Tasting Menu ($125), thirteen courses in addition to amuses-gueules and mignardises, and rather than purchase a bottle of wine – which I almost always do – I turned myself over to the *very* capable sommelier, Carl Harrison Rohrbach, for a Tier 1 Wine Pairing ($65) which provided me with a different wine for nearly every course, and as different as these courses were, one from another, the pairings were of prime importance – even more importantly, the pairings were absolutely brilliant.

This meal, which was over $200 before tax and tip (don’t forget I got a cocktail), could have been much more costly, had I gone now – two months later – and gotten the Grand Tasting Menu ($185), which now requires a one-week advance notice, with its Reserve Wine Pairing ($185). However, when I went, I noticed some overlap between the two grand menus, and since I was there for the food more than the wine, I felt the Reserve Pairing would have been more than I needed (and was nearly double the price at $125), and I think I made a correct decision – the important thing is to stay away from the more simplistic menus, and I even wrote the chef afterwards, and told him he should completely do away with them. We got into a fairly extensive conversation, and I can assure you that he really, really wants to serve *only* the two upper-level tasting menus, and is currently offering the weeknight four-course so locals will frequent Elements during the week – it has yet to receive national attention, but when it does, the more simplistic menus may indeed disappear, and I hope they do.

Rather than go through the litany of courses, I’m just going to show you the menu (which I emphasize is the more modest of the two):

Elements Chef Tasting Menu

And to give you but one example of a particularly dramatic presentation, I’m going to include one picture of the “Woodear Mushroom” course:


Look at the menu I had, envision a best-case scenario, and trust me that the woodear-mushroom presentation was the most flamboyant thing by far (too many presentations such as this would be, well, too many, but for this one course? It was about the coolest thing I’ve ever been presented with (for a solo diner, there was one, single mushroom in this presentation, and it wasn’t easy to find)).

In order to create a more intimate link between kitchen and diner, each course was presented and explained by a different member of the kitchen staff (including the Executive Chef, Scott Anderson, and the outstanding Sous Chef, Mike Ryan, who created and served the amazing Kasuzuke Ocean Trout tableside – this Michelin 3-star dish, along with the Patranque, are two courses I’ll remember for the rest of my life.

The last actual Michelin 2-star meal I’ve had in Europe was at ABaC, and based mainly on their relatively poor wine cellar, I have trouble justifying their 2-star rating (although the hotel it’s in is absolutely spectacular – perhaps the most impressive hotel in all of Barcelona) – despite the luxury of the glorious ABaC Hotel, coupled with the incredible architecture incorporated into the restaurant, I believe that Elements was a better dining experience. It was also the first time in probably a couple of years that I’ve spent over $200 on a meal just for myself before tax and tip, and when I walked out, I was marveling at how good of a *value* it was. Really. This was the greatest meal I’ve had in a long, long time, and it was worth every penny.

For those of you familiar with my work, ask yourself this: How many restaurants do I rave *this much* about?

12/11/15 Addendum: To those who have been directed here, please enjoy the full conversation on donrockwell.com, and join in by becoming a member of our community – joining is quick, easy, FREE, and PRIVATE – simply respond to the confirmation email.

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