I wanted to love Elements, I really did. It was all just too much. Too many ingredients in each dish. Way too much protein. I can put away a ton of food, but I felt wretched after this meal. The gritty details of my demise are below, and the hopefully not-too-gritty photos are HERE.
I’m generally about as likely to visit New Jersey as I would be to meet my life partner at Tasti D-Lite. Maybe it’s the GTL presence in the former or the regrettable absence of LDL in the latter, but something about going to either place has never felt quite right.
But one day, every New Yorker wakes up feeling jaded and tired of all the restaurants by which he is surrounded. His mother comes to visit from out of state, and he wants to take her someplace nice. He is forced to think outside the boroughs.
In the past, this scenario has pointed my own compass northward to Tarrytown. But tonight my mom and I are in Princeton, and we’ve walked past leagues of ivy-covered buildings to arrive at a restaurant called Elements. Our table is situated in the kitchen — Scott Anderson’s kitchen — and my dad is here, too.
It doesn’t take me long to find the shovel with which I’ll dig our collective grave. I ask the gentleman I assume to be our server if some kind of extended menu might possibly be arranged. I assume — and acknowledge — that this will cost more than the standard tasting menu, so find myself a little frustrated to endure a stubborn sales pitch for truffles and wagyu beef. It takes literally four tries to convince him that we don’t need those supplementary flourishes. I just want to see Chef Anderson’s cooking, not his credit card statement.
Early on we see a lot of vegetables, and this being late November, they provide tastes of autumn. Sweet potato soup comes dotted with sweet little cubes of compressed apple. Hubbard squash custard points us to maple and mustard. Salt-roasted beets take a decidedly funky turn with a cheese called Shropshire Blue, a simple duo that emerges as one of my favorites of the night.
Chef Anderson’s larder also leans heavily toward Japan. Menu verbiage veers toward a vocabulary test. A finely minced tartare of hamachi, for instance, gets crowned with tonburi and yuzu zest. Foie gras fields wakame seaweed and umeboshi sorbet. Sea bass here is not just sea bass; it’s suzuki. And Anderson is as excited as any practitioner of kaiseki cuisine might be to have matsutake mushrooms in season. He’s made a consommé of them, and ladled it into a cast-iron pot brimming with fat nubs of mushroom and gossamer sheets of lardo.
The sad part is that those seasonal ‘shrooms lack sufficient salt — to my taste, at least — and a composed carrot salad does, too. There’s a lot going on in that dish: nori and smoked ricotta cheese, hazelnuts and roughly-torn shreds of Japanese brown sugar bread. It’s a band with too many instruments, the work of a writer in need of an editor.
Razor clams “casino” don’t fare much better. They’ve a chewy bounce that suggests over-cooking, and a distracting grittiness that makes me think they’ve been improperly cleaned, too. Imagine, also, my disappointment when a racquetball-sized potato, beautifully shrouded with black and white truffles, tastes and smells of nothing.
Fortunately the rest of the proteins, on balance, save the day. That suzuki I mentioned holds its own marvelously against an assertive backdrop of yogurt and black truffles, a beguiling combination. Mangalitsa pork neck is impeccably tender, perfect atop a bittersweet pecan-and-black-sesame puree. Colorado lamb tugs us unexpectedly back-and-forth between Mexico (hoja santa and green mole) and southern France (aligot re-fashioned into a fluffy steamed bread), and we’re very happy to make the journey. It’s our favorite dish of the night.
And that’s not to mention the most interesting — Scottish woodcock, in three services. The first is a “tea” brewed with its dried, smoked, and dry-aged meat in a French press. Then the heads of the roasted birds arrive, ready for us to pick their brains. My mom is, of course, giggling with delight at this point. In fact she’s so unable to control her laughter that she distractedly pushes every bit of roasted breast meat off of her plate and onto mine. My father does the same, bequeathing to me even the liver-filled porcini macarons that come with it.
Now I’ve eaten basically an entire bird, and I’m so disgustingly full that I want to kill somebody. My parents, meanwhile, wear smiles, but there’s something murderous in their eyes. I fear for my safety. Granted, none of us can move at this point, anyway. We’ve been assaulted by abundance, beaten by bounty. I’ve given up on everything sacred in this world.
Desserts — I hate to say it — are excellent. Concord grape sorbet with lemon verbena, smoked salt, and rose apple is a pretty prelude. Then we’re hit with some pumpkin cheesecake, and a chocolate/peanut butter/banana dessert that is undeniably delicious, unapologetically rich.
There’s a candle stuck in that last one. It’s my birthday, actually. And if reaching the ripe old age of 27 has taught me one bit of wisdom, it is this: the next time I go out to dinner, when the server tries to take our order, I’m just going to shut the hell up.
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