As has been our tradition since we began dating, when our respective birthdays arrive, the honoree chooses the venue, the other pays the tab. And this year, Russ chose elements (lower case “e”), a Michelin-caliber experience, situated in a lovely, loft-like second-floor space, braced in wooden rafters and stone, above Mistral in Princeton. Philly food critic Craig LaBan gives it a rating of 3 Bells. What can I say, my guy has good taste…
Mid-May is often a difficult time of year to obtain reservations at high end restaurants due to all kinds of celebrations. We know first-hand because it is a yearly ordeal for Russ’s birthday. As luck would have it, we actually got a booking, albeit at 8:15, on a Saturday night in mid-May. And with just nine tables in the main dining room, it was even more surprising. The dining Gods were on our side.
A waiter was kind enough to take our picture next to the open kitchen as we were leaving.
The elements team—executive chef and co-owner Scott Anderson, who according to LaBan “Anderson’s food can be as exceptionally delicious as it is quirky,” chef de cuisine Mike Ryan, and their team of visionaries in the kitchen—place a first-rate focus on fresh ingredients, many of which are sourced from local farmers and producers. They transform classic dishes into something altogether new utilizing innovative, modern techniques to draw out the purest flavors. Refreshingly, the seasonally driven menu changes daily and places a heightened focus on tasting menus. These descriptors reeled us in, hook, line and sinker!
In simple terms, a dinner at elements is this: Mannered. Urbane. Clever. Luxuriant. Restrained. Also, playful. Also, emotional. — By
Elements, with its flexible approach allows diners to tackle anywhere from four courses on weeknights, five or more courses on weekends, and up to 20-plus for the $185 Grand Tasting. Holey-moley, one has to have a huuuugge appetite (not to mention wallet) for that! Since our reservations were on a Saturday, we were going to enjoy five courses…
Not finding any immediate street parking in downtown Princeton, there was a garage just a few short blocks away from our destination, so we took advantage and pulled in. Used to paying Philly prices, we were shocked to see the rate was only $5 for three hours. Even more shocked when we paid to drive out—a mere $1.75 total—the parking Gods seemed to be on our side too!
We initially entered into the bar Mistral on the first floor where a host immediately greeted us, and whisked upstairs via elevator to the modernly appointed elements on the second floor. Their attention to detail never wavered from the moment they pulled out my seat, to exchanging flatware between every course, to warm hand towels after the “amuse bouche” plates, and a final touch of warmed milk with your coffee.
After being seated by a window overlooking famed Witherspoon Street, we were presented with two dining options with separate menus (one had more courses, and of course cost more dinero), and a very large and thorough wine list from our friendly and knowledgable waiter, dressed in suit and spiffy bowtie. An inquiry was made regarding the wheat food allergy I noted in the online res, so when Russ told him he avoids gluten, they accommodated him with homemade gluten-free bread and substituted peas for the farro in the steak dish.
Their homemade breads were unbelievable, enough that I finished the entire slice of the grain bread and a bit of the chewy, crusty loaf—and I don’t typically eat bread…
After selecting a Spanish red, Peña El Gato, from the Rioja region, one of the chefs appeared at our table with a bird’s nest in hand, filled with two beautiful quail eggs that were cured in wine lees and smoked to perfection with a delicate outer white and soft-boiled-like, creamy interior. I must confess, I’d never eaten a quail’s egg that I know of, but I was impressed.
Two smoked quail eggs are presented table side in a gorgeous bird’s nest.
We were told to pick up the eggs in hand and eat them that way.
Next up, while a stereo played Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” and other 70’s favorites, another chef delivered a little plate with two beautiful squares—but for the life of us we can’t remember what they were—other than very good. We think they were called Panisse…
The second amuse bouche of the night that we think was called Panisse…
Even the warm hand towels were presented on a beautiful ceramic plate.
Before the actual courses started to arrive, we received two warm hand towels on a beautiful artistic plate. In fact, each course was arranged on a different vessel that complimented the food. My coworker Francis informed me the day prior to our outing that elements crockery is made especially for the restaurant by John Shedd at his studio in nearby Rocky Hill—a place Francis’ wife Jane works. So of course I had to take a picture of the back of a signed plate…
The orchestration of the cooking, plating and delivery is interesting to experience via the open kitchen. Each chef is responsible for one of the courses and when the time is appropriate, they not only bring it to your table, but explain in detail what everything is and how it was sourced and/or cooked. Our “five courses” are described in the menu below.
The “live” scallop dish was topped with little white radish flowers.
Japanese Kanpachi Tataki with rhubarb, green almond and spring garlic was similar to ahi tuna.
Neither of us had ever tasted Barrelfish before, but it won’t be the last time either.
The ribeye was sublime, and the maitake mushrooms were out of this world! Interestingly, there were no potatoes or yogurt included even though the menu said otherwise.
The dessert had a deceptively simple name, “White Chocolate” even though it was anything but simple. It featured an earl grey custard, with bits of citrus and a lemony soy milk ice cream with small planks of speckled white chocolate and topped with candied kumquat slices. Those of you that know me, know that I typically never eat dessert, but this is one time where I made an exception and ate about half before turning the remainder over to a very happy birthday boy.
To me, bathrooms always say something about the soul of a place, and elements two spacious “WCs” were topnotch with rolled cloth hand towels, a modern wooden receptacle in which to discard the used towels, gorgeous tile work, mood lighting and modern vessel sinks.
While waiting for the check, the final food presentation was an individually wrapped, homemade bourbon chocolate topped with a dash of sea salt covering a minty, creamy white interior. Of course I had to take a taste, and again Russ was forced to finish it 😉
‘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… Michelin 3-star dish… courses I’ll remember for the rest of my life.’ — DC Dining Review
This dining experience will surely be one that we also remember for a very long time… Hmmm, my birthday is coming up in a few months… If you’re looking for a venue to celebrate a special occasion, you might want to explore elements.