A fresh Princeton breeze wafted through the open patio doors into the bleached-wood rafters of Mistral's airy dining room on Witherspoon Street. We were at a butcher-block table near the branches of a gnarled catawba tree posed in the corner, observing the theater of young cooks hustling behind the chef's counter beside the open kitchen. And as I spooned through the exquisite little dishes before me - a silky chawanmushi "chowder" custard scattered with tender razor clams and crunchy potatoes, and a smoked garganelli pasta dotted with hazelnuts and vivid egg yolks - my mind could not help drifting back in time.
Two decades ago, fresh out of journalism school, I came to Witherspoon Street for my first newspaper job at the Princeton Packet. I cranked out local news on everything from gun clubs to fruitcake competitions. But culinary highlights were scarce.
There was Hoagie Haven and PJ's Pancake House. If I stood close to the lace-trimmed windows of august Lahiere's, I could smell the archaic fust. Triumph Brewery's opening was the gastronomic event of the year.
But there has since been a seismic transformation in this college town's food scene - for many years muffled by ivied conservatism and an eating-club culture that keeps student food dollars on campus. The Bent Spoon is now churning some of the best ice cream in America (avocado with chocolate sauce? Oh my.) The borough has ambitious dining options such as the Blue Point Grill, Mediterra, a revived Peacock Inn, and the Witherspoon Grill. Artisan farms produce quail (Griggstown) and cheese (Cherry Grove) nearby. Lahiere's has been trendily replaced by farm-to-table Agricola.
But the arrival of Scott Anderson is the one development serious foodies should take notice of most. The ex-Ryland Inn chef de cuisine launched Elements in 2008 in an old service station, now poshly reimagined into a fine-dining oasis that's worth the drive from Philly or New York. From the elaborate "fermentation program" (kombu pickled in sake lees; several house-made soys), to an exceptional wine program and exquisite tasting meals bracketed in foie gras and chef-foraged spruce boughs, a meal at Elements reflects inspired contemporary cuisine presented with prerecession opulence.
Mistral, the BYOB that is Anderson's latest creation, is far more a creation of the current zeitgeist for a more casual setting, with small plates and relatively affordable prices that should appeal to a wider, younger audience.
Mistral struggles with some aspects of that more-relaxed approach - a supersonic noise problem that made the server beside our table impossible to hear; a haltingly paced, freestyle flow of sharing dishes that often arrived in random, illogical order; and a generally disorganized staff that lost my reservation, among other things. These front-house issues held Mistral back from a higher rating.
But the kitchen is already there under the direction of superbly talented chef de cuisine Ben Nerenhausen, whose cooking is very much worthy of Elements.
The son of globe-hopping teachers, Nerenhausen produces food drawn as much from childhood memories in Pakistan and Egypt as from his gastronomic stints as sous-chef at San Francisco's Fifth Floor and the Michelin-starred Restaurant at Meadowood in Napa. Rice crackers come dusted with Berber spice. A Middle Eastern dukkah blend of hazelnuts, cumin, and fennel lend grilled beets with lime crème fraîche an earthy perfume.
A piquant mince of golden raisins, preserved lemons, and anchovies elevated roasted cauliflower to memorable. Cuminy albondigas - short-rib meatballs glazed in chipotle over summer beans vivid green with cilantro-basil butter - were among the best I've eaten.
Anderson's influence remains present with the occasional dish and special, such as the pristine bonito tartare rising over tart plum consommé, or the crisply seared ocean perch with fresh garbanzo beans and black garlic, or a memorable hamachi dry-cured for days with espelette peppers to a toothy, meaty chew.
But Nerenhausen's wide repertoire of international flavors and techniques dictates the tone. The giant arepa corn cake enriched with duck fat and topped with confit leg meat, cactus salsa, and charcoal-colored huitlacoche puree was a stroke of Nuevo Latino inspiration. Translucent pink slices of house-cured pork draped lightly fried tempura summer vegetables. A crispy chicken breast roulade, threaded with a seaweed sheet of nori, evoked Asia with a furikake spice-speckled rice porridge, maitakes, and shishito peppers. Perfect cubes of boneless chicken thighs, crisply fried in a buttermilk crust over creamy corn and tangy chowchow, made me want to picnic.
The sous-vide machine gets a workout with the short rib cooked for 48 hours in its rendered, smoked fat. The relatively small portion (at $21, easily the menu's most expensive dish) might be a turnoff. But the pudding-soft texture and pairing with charred romaine puree and a surprise smoked oyster was stunning.
Nerenhausen wasn't quite flawless. His lamb disappointed twice, with a cut of shank (too chewy) at one meal, and neck meat (too fatty) another.
But even with more straightforward dishes - silky duck liver mousse topped with plum mostarda and Marsala gelée; pressure-cooked octopus with heirloom tomato panzanella; sweet crab salad with the fried crunch of shaved baby artichoke - he was usually pitch-perfect. A giant seared scallop with barley risotto, root vegetables, and a dollop of whipped, smoked pork fat delivered savory depth without weight. Creamy poufs of semolina gnocchi played textural hide-and-seek with tender nubs of sweetbreads and lion's mane mushrooms in Madeira jus.
A pastrami-spiced, dry-aged duck breast, though also a small portion, was exceptional alongside kohlrabi and cippolini. Nerenhausen's skate was a celebration of carrots, shaved into multihued ribbons and dehydrated to "carrot crumbs."
Carrot love was a continued theme at dessert, as the root was whipped into a white chocolate crémeux over a pastry of pistachio gingerbread. But my favorite was a late-summer panna cotta inspired by Mexican street corn. The custard was infused with sweet corn milk and studded with tangy peach and corn relish, the top a chewy fluff of roasted marshmallow dusted with lime, chile, and corn nuts.
As I spooned down through the layers, I thought back on my Packet days once again. Be very patient, I should have told my hungry cub reporter self. In 15 years or so, Princeton will finally feed you well.
Join Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan for a live online chat Tuesdays at 2 p.m. at www.inquirer.com/labanchats.
Chef de cuisine Ben Nerenhausen discusses Mistral at www.inquirer.com/labanreviews.
Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews Xi'an Sizzling Woks in Chinatown.