“Do you want to go back to ‘Le Bernardin’ for our anniversary,” he asked?
Oh, I was so tempted to say yes after that heavenly experience there a few months ago. Instead I said no. Having read so much about the restaurant ‘Elements’ here in Princeton, I really wanted to find out what all the buzz was about. “Let’s go there instead,” I said.
After years of complaints that Princeton, N.J. has no really great restaurants, professional reviewers and regular diners alike have been touting ‘Elements’ as the first place in town where the food is finally up to big city standards. I wanted to find out for myself whether the hype was warranted or whether I’d still be heading to New York for special occasion meals.
Elements is located on Route 206 in a building converted from a former garage. The transformation is nothing short of remarkable - sleek, subdued and elegant, (and dim at night too, hence the mediocre food photos).
Considering the refined space, we were taken aback while waiting in the small vestibule when out came a group of diners, one of whom was wearing bib overall blue jeans, complete with multiple tool and utility pockets. Obviously Elements has no dress code. Even though we weren’t dressed to the nines, the sweater set I was wearing and the blazer and tie my husband sported might have looked a bit out of place on a tractor in the back forty, unlike the diner with the blue jean bib overalls who had just left. Farmer John was just a bit jarring, but not a deal-breaker, to be sure.
We were seated a few minutes later, not in the main dining room, but upstairs in a private space with three tables. Well, it would have been private if you didn’t count the two other groups seated there – one of which was another couple also looking forlorn and the other a large family with at least half a dozen children. I have nothing against children, having raised two of my own, and they may have been well-behaved, but it felt like we were interloping at a party we hadn’t been invited to.
“Did they relegate us up here because I told them it’s our anniversary,” I wondered. Who knew? But the real party was downstairs in the main dining room and we were in a celebratory mood. We wanted to feel the vibe with everyone else. Fortunately our request to move downstairs was honored and a table was soon cleared for us.
“Much better,” I thought, especially after the amuse-bouche was delivered to the table. It arrived in a small, narrow vessel and was meant to be gulped, not eaten with a spoon. If first impressions count, this one made a good one – a flavorful sweet red pepper and coconut soup. Among his other credits, executive chef and co-owner Scott Anderson has worked at the Ryland Inn, Mediterra and the Baystreet Grill.
Since it was our anniversary, we decided to order the spring tasting menu, complete with wine pairings suggested by the restaurant. Still, I asked if they could give a couple of substitutions; otherwise, we’d both be eating the same dishes all night. The restaurant was happy to oblige when I asked for a different cold appetizer and meat course.
My husband’s Kindai fluke sashimi (a farmed, bluefin tuna raised for sustainability) arrived swathed in a jumble of white asparagus, sorrel and cucumber. The tangle of fresh and flavorful ingredients complemented each other perfectly and we both agreed that the dish was a great way to start the meal.
I was equally, if not even more pleased with my selection – a citrus soup that tasted like a grown-up creamsicle interlaced with herbs, cashews and laughing bird shrimp (a sweet and sustainable alternative to rock shrimp). Another pair of laughing bird shrimp topped with avocado bits were perched astride the soup, awaiting my eager palate. It was an inspired combination of ingredients and presentation and I would happily return for a larger bowl of this anytime.
The wild grouper followed for each of us – another one of the evening’s highlights. It had a decidedly Thai accent, with curry, coconut, cashew, scallion and kaffir lime lending an explosive flavor, along with small bits of broccoli and cauliflower peeking out from under a perfectly cooked nugget of grouper.
A pasta course of spaghetti alla carbonara came next. Any lover of Italian cuisine worth her weight in mozzarella knows the classic dish is made with pancetta or guanciale (an unsmoked type of bacon), eggs, parmigiano or pecorino cheese and plenty of coarsely black pepper, hence the name carbonara, or in ‘coal man’ style.
I’m all for reinventing something to make it better, but in this case, it was worse. I didn’t mind the nouveau touch of peas, but the house bacon was so heavily smoked it overpowered the dish. Even the pasta itself was overcooked, when it should have been al dente.
My meat course was no better. The “48 hour” short ribs arrived and I had great hopes after reading a few rave reviews about the dish. Yes it was fork tender, but where was the seasoning? Did somebody forget to add it before starting the sous-vide technique? Oh well, at least I had those pretty pea and carrot puree dots to swish it through.
My husband was a little happier with his veal dish made up of three different elements. The veal loin and sweetbreads were tender and delicious, but surprisingly, the third element – the veal cheeks - lacked much flavor. A dab of burrata, a couple of gnocchi and fava beans were strewn around the meat and there was nothing about the dish that elevated it to above average.
The cheese course struck a good note and all the cheeses were delicious, from the Berkshire Blue from Massachusetts, to the Appalachian washed rind from Virginia to the Sweetgrass from Georgia. Still, the note could have expanded to a real song if a goat or sheep’s milk cheese had also been substituted for one of the cow’s milk choices.
Next came a course compliments of the house – a specialty that our waiter said was designed as a transition from the savory foods we had just eaten to the sweeter desserts that were still to come. The dish was a playful take on bacon and eggs, with a hollowed-out egg filled with brioche and bacon custard and topped with maple foam. A small piece of French toast and a candied bacon strip drizzled with maple syrup sat next to the egg.
Visually, the egg reminded me of a similar treat I had eaten at Le Bernardin, created by Pastry Chef Michael Laiskonis. I guess it’s not surprising, since Element’s sous chef Joe Sparatta worked with Laiskonis at Le Bernardin.
But where Laiskonis’ egg was ethereal, the one at Elements was heavy. Delicious, but heavy. It was a clever idea, but it belonged on a breakfast or brunch menu, not after two fish courses, a pasta dish, a meat course and a cheese platter. Although all the portions were small, the very filling egg/french toast/bacon was unnecessary with dessert still to come. A more welcome transition would have been to serve some savory jams or mostarda with the cheeses, as is customarily done in Europe.
Dessert was still ahead and the tasting menu offered two. One was a deconstructed black forest cake, with a lambic granite and something that the menu refers to as “sponge.” I do not exaggerate when I say the two alcoholic-flavored cherries garnishing the plate were the best thing about this dish. Without belaboring the point, both the lambic granite (made using a kind of beer) and the roulade cake lacked any intensity of flavor (and who wants chocolate cake to be subtle?) and the “sponge” (whatever that was) never had a chance. After a small taste of the other elements in this dish, we lost interest.
On the other hand, the second dessert was loaded with flavor, but it was all the wrong kind. No complaints about the shortbread cookie acting as a base, but the little square of panna cotta above it was made with more gelatin that any panna cotta has a right to exhibit, giving it a firm texture reminiscent of a refrigerator jello cheesecake dessert, rather than a creamy, unctuous texture of a properly made panna cotta. But what was really offensive was the crunchy brittle layer atop the panna cotta, made with peanut and bacon. Yes, bacon. But wait, it gets worse with a small scoop of spring pea ice cream on top of it all. A bad idea all around. The entire dessert was probably only about two inches square and most of it went back to the kitchen uneaten.
When making the reservation, I was asked if it was a special occasion, and the restaurant honored us with a greeting handwritten in chocolate as they brought out the little mignardise plate. Thank goodness the evening ended on a positive note. These little cookies and confections were far better than the desserts listed above and each table of diners gets these gratis after the meal.
I haven’t mentioned anything about the wine pairings yet but I have to admit that even those missed the mark in some of the courses. Some were really wonderful however, and I would gladly order a couple of them on a return visit.
Return visit? Yes, even after what we considered some real misses and a very expensive tab, we would return to Elements again - never again to order the full tasting menu, or to sit at the even more expensive chef’s table, (which thankfully was fully booked when I called to reserve two spots) given the inconsistent quality of the cuisine and uninspiring wine selections among some real standouts. The fish courses, the soups and the cheeses however were all stellar and I would order them again in a heartbeat.
Yes, we’d go back to Elements again, but we’d stick to one or two courses that lived up to the hype. Forget the dessert course – enjoy the free mignardise instead.
But the next time my husband suggests Le Bernardin for a special occasion meal, I’ll be on the train or the NJ Turnpike quicker than you can say “Eric Ripert.”