A Damn Good Reason to Go to Princeton: Dining at Elements

Normally I wouldn’t advocate jaunting across the Hudson River on a train or dealing with Holland Tunnel traffic just to have dinner, but on a recent Friday night I found myself doing just that—and it was totally worth it.

My friend had rented a blue Mini Cooper, and as she navigated around end-of-the-week traffic, I tried to read the map off her iPhone. Almost two hours later, and after passing a set for a new Justin Timberlake movie, we made it to Elements. Chef Scott Anderson and partner Stephen Distler opened the restaurant in October of 2008 with the premise that Elements would draw from many resources from the surrounding area. From there, they wanted to serve intricate dishes that strike the senses and give diners a sampling of all facets of taste. Anderson calls it “interpretative American cuisine;” I call it an experience worth spending hours on.

Though, from the outside of the restaurant, I had yet to be impressed as it looked like any place built in the 1970s or 1980s you might find in New Jersey, or Connecticut, or anywhere that isn’t a major metropolis. But, we weren’t there for the setting; we were there for Anderson’s multi-course chef’s tasting menu. They sat us in backroom, across from the open kitchen. There, we could see the handsome chef and his minions hastily plating food, pulling pans out of ovens, and chatting as they prepped each dish. The beauty of owning your own restaurant is that you don’t have to follow anyone’s rules, and as it is, Anderson doesn’t even follow a solid menu. On any given night, you can find dishes inspired by what he got at the market, what fish was best, and what local product was at its peak. You will not get the same dish twice, so in that, each experience remains priceless.

The richness of that knowledge started simple, with a dish of Big Eye tuna with fermented celery and lemon juice, served in a glass on top of a cut stone. After that amuse quickly vanished, a stream of unique items were presented to us in true fine dining fashion, each a surprise, and each as tasty as the last. We had potato custard with caviar, Dungeness crab with ginger lily, and duck tartare with seared foie gras.

At one point, the chef-de-cuisine, Mike Ryancame out to show us the whole woodcock that they would be serving us later. This was one of the exceptions to Anderson’s hunt for local and market-driven products, it was explained, the woodcock had come all the way from Scotland because you can’t hunt the birds and serve them in the states.  The end product, which looked nothing like the feathered bird sported before, was a mix of gamey meat and earthy mushrooms that got tied together with an herbaceous note.

After nine courses, I had tried a handful of dishes that completely surprised me, like the innovative sunchoke ceviche with tuna cream and a tomatillo broth. These flavor profiles, textures, and overall composition played beautifully, and showed me you don’t have to be in L.A. or New York to get a meal worthy of the trek and time it took to get there. Though, I recommend taking the train instead of driving, that way you can do a wine pairing with the meal and avoid the craziness that is the Holland Tunnel at any hour. 

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