Is the dining world ready to pluck wrinkled brown mushrooms off a mossy branch? How about a crispy chip of fried poultry skin (dabbed with two-year-old fermented mole) perched on a wiry mesh of chicken wire? Or maybe a premeal quail egg, cured in wine lees and smoked, then brought tableside nestled inside a baby bird's nest?
Such "New Jersey Naturalist" presentations - especially at a restaurant like elements in Princeton serving tasting menus from $79 to $125 and beyond - are just the kind of gestures that have divided my friends into two distinct camps. On one side are the gastronauts who'll travel the globe to eat the unique and revel in a witty chef or rare cuisine that can reshape the notion of dinner. On the other side are my traditionalist friends who find the whole sweep of modern-dining movements - molecular foam, New Nordic moss, and 30-bite deconstructed menu marathons - to be supremely tiresome and silly.
I can empathize with both, having witnessed the highs and lows of such experiences. But elements, with its flexible approach allowing diners to tackle anywhere from four courses (weeknights) to 20-plus (for the $185 Grand Tasting), may well be a happy compromise.
One of the long-form meals at elements will no doubt test the patience of conservative eaters. And 41-year-old chef and co-owner Scott Anderson clearly falls on the madman side of the culinary divide, lanky haired and unshaven in his open kitchen, tweezering truffle-strewn langoustines and torching Shunkyo radishes to picture-perfection while the stereo incongruously blasts "More Than a Feeling" and "My Sharona."
But here's the thing: Anderson's food can be as exceptionally delicious as it is quirky. I have no idea what possessed him to fry fresh-baked biscuits in hot schmaltz and then crumble them over snow crab soup. But I can still taste the roasty crunch of those pastry bits against the luxuriously soft plumes of sweet crustacean. That wrinkly, brown woodear mushroom I plucked off a branch? It gave a startlingly delicate snap between my teeth that worked like an umami trampoline for the soy and minty shiso flavors of its marinade.
Yes, elements' food can occasionally be overwrought and lost on a tangent. Like the raw uni placed over a sticky cube of an obscure French stuffing called patranque that was like eating creamy mush atop cheesy mush. Or the steeping of chef-foraged yarrow, clover, and Philadelphia fleabane daisies that made fine tableside dramatics but that was too reminiscent of lawn mower tea.
But the moments of delight and discovery far outnumbered the misses. And this new location for elements, moved to a space atop the more casual restaurant and bar Mistral, which Anderson also owns with partner Stephen Distler, is a bold gesture to reimagine fine dining for 2015 as a chef's playhouse atelier unlike many in the region.
At just 28 seats, compared to 80 in the previous address, this lofty second-floor room braced in wood rafters and stone allows for more personal attention from the five cooks who also act as food runners, sharing in the automatic 20 percent "guest experience" fee. With a maître d' guiding guests through the menu and bowtied sommelier Carl Rohrbach and his stellar wine pairings attending to diners' essential needs, the stripped-back service model is both sustainable as a business and smooth in the dining room. Guests still experience every luxury, from the exceptional cellar to gorgeous hand-illustrated menus (for the Grand Tasting) and crockery made just for the restaurant nearby in Rocky Hill. Meanwhile, cooks present their work proudly in detail minus the kind of hyperbole traditional servers can be prone to.
This inventive polyglot kitchen, fluent in myriad international styles and techniques, is particularly adept at interpreting seasonal produce from suppliers like nearby Z Food Farm or "Jim the Mushroom Man," the wild-haired forager who showed up during one of my meals with basketball-size maitakes and a box of gypsy mushrooms.
Those maitakes reappeared at a later meal in stunning form, roasted beneath shaved black truffles over a "couscous" made from crumbled cauliflower soaked in rich chicken gravy. Dehydrated tomatoes, crispy potato skins, shriveled eggplants, and tart tomatillo gelée captured colorful, late-harvest vibrance in a dish called "Nightshades." A long and crunchy Shunkyo radish, roasted over smoky embers beneath a ginger-scallion puree and dots of amberjack mayo, reimagined a sashimi dish through a root. A roasted Asian eggplant standing tall in a sesame-speckled pool of chicken stock was haunted by the sweet aromatics of vadouvan curry.
Even when pastas or proteins are the supposed stars, they are elevated by inventive produce garnishes, like the dehydrated turnips that added earthy sweetness to beef agnolotti, or a tangy jujube date mostarda that brought fruity zing to bison tartare. An extraordinary guinea hen, divided into a tender rail of breast meat beside a round of rustic terrine, hit another level over an earthy "risotto" made from hominy corn topped with the lemony, crystal-frosted microgreens known as ice lettuce (or ficoïde glaciale).
A weekday entrée of local fluke crusted with sheer potato rounds layered like scales, served over a chowdery froth of clams in cream, showed a surprisingly satisfying embrace of classic elegance. Likewise, one of the most memorable dishes was essentially steak and mushrooms. Of course, the meat was an ember-roasted morsel of Ideue Farm Wagyu beef from Japan, so shot through with marbling it looked glazed. And the mushroom was an unlikely fresh porcini picked that morning "just down the street" by chef de cuisine Mike Ryan. The mushroom snapped with woodsy perfume. The beef practically melted. And my taste buds hummed for hours after Japan met Princeton terroir in the very best of bites.
There were, to be sure, a few too many plates along the way that lacked focus - caviar overwhelmed by sunchokes; chewy squid; a strange fish stock tea; a salty roast pork - to make me tout elements' three-and-a-half-hour Grand Tasting splurge over its more concise, better-edited, and less pricey menus.
But in its most inspiring Wagyu-porcini moments, washed down with Rohrbach's pours of Carema nebbiolo and Selyem pinot noir, then sweetened with the surprising finale of a curious orange blob otherwise known as a wild New Jersey persimmon, it's easy to imagine elements evolving into one of the region's most exciting dining destinations. Just follow the branches, bird nests, and chicken wire.
Next week, Craig LaBan reviews Bud & Marilyn's.
66 Witherspoon St., Princeton; 609-924-0078, elementsprinceton.com.
The new location of chef Scott Anderson's culinary atelier in Princeton, in a lofty space above its more casual sibling, Mistral, is one of the most ambitious efforts to redefine fine dining within an hour of Philadelphia. From the exceptional wine pairings to the hyper-inventive "New Jersey Naturalist" cuisine, presented over foraged branches, birds' nests, and handmade crockery by chef-servers in a range of tasting menus (from four courses to 20-plus), this is luxe dining as immersive and surprising as theater. The longer menu leaves too much room for weak-link dishes, and the tired '80s sound track is out of place. But elements is nonetheless a fun culinary adventure worth the trip, with potential to mature to next-level status.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS Woodear mushroom; eggplant with vadouvan curry; nightshades; Shunkyo radish; langoustine with chestnut and apples; snow crab with biscuits; bison tartare; hen of the woods with cauliflower; orecchiette with sausage; beef agnolotti; potato-crusted fluke; guinea hen; Wagyu and porcini; jujube cake; chocolate with pluot; and mint patty.
DRINKS Sommelier Carl Rohrbach is a master at pairing the restaurant's 400-label cellar of largely European wines (plus sakes, Belgian beers, and cocktails) with the multicourse meals, with options ranging from $45 (five wines) to 13-pour grand-tasting flights between $75 and $185 for rarer trophy wines. Expect grower Champagnes (Gimonnet), wine-nerd regions like the Jura (Chateau d'Arlay), great Italians (Grasso; Produttori di Carema), uber-dry riesling (J.B. Becker), and cult Cali pinots (William Selyem) poured through a high-tech Coravin.
WEEKEND NOISE A reasonable low-80s decibels, unless music is loud. (Ideal is 75 decibels or less.)
IF YOU GO Dinner Tuesday through Thursday 5-9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday until 10 p.m. Closed Sunday and Monday.
Four-course menu, $79; Chef's Tasting, $125 (13-15 courses); Grand Tasting, $175 (I lost count). A la carte also available.
All major cards.
Reservations highly recommended.
Street and lot parking only.