"You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone in New York with better produce than ours," said chef Scott Anderson inside the Elements kitchen in Princeton. He's a Jersey boy through and through who sources from farms just up the road, or in some cases, right outside in the parking lot. "The goal is to make the whole lot an edible garden," said Anderson, who co-owns the restaurant, a bit tucked away from the busy Nassau-Witherspoon intersection, with business partner Stephen Distler.
Before Elements opened in October 2008—in a former auto body shop, which you can still visualize from its garage shape—there wasn't much in the way of fine dining in the area. Quite a few Serious Eats editors and writers have spent time in Princeton but never seem to mention much beyond the Wawa hoagies. (Carey wishes to add: "Mediterra is more than solid, but most of the other nicer establishments are as crusty as the professors and alums that frequent them.")
The daily-rotating menu at Elements is an ambitious one. You can order à la carte in the dining rooms upstairs or downstairs, or from the tasting menu, served in a kitchen-side room that's right up on top of the action, but still cozy-feeling with tall cookbook shelves against the wall. Each course, often hand-delivered to the table by the actual cooks, including Anderson himself or sous chef Mike Ryan, comes with an explanation (and given all the nuances of each dish, needs it).
"This beef tongue is served with kimchi, honey mussels, and the foam made from the mussels' cooking liquid." It takes a second to process all of the elements presented on the plate. Yet the chatty servers make the experience fun and un-stuffy, welcoming questions and giving you a peek into the cooking process. Our server brought out a glistening whole herring from Japan—stuffed with barley and tied with a string—just before it was sliced and plated.
The bar alone, with just a few stools to snag, is worth a visit. Bar manager Jamie Dodge has it well-stocked with craft spirits, homemade syrups, shrubs, and bitters lined up behind the counter. Flip through the drinks binder to read about the 15+ house cocktails, often classically inspired and cheekily named. See: "The Fear and Loathing in Princeton" (gin, campari, averna, and mezcal) and "Daaaam Son" (made with Damson gin, naturally).
The tasting menu is constantly evolving; see some sample menus here. The folks behind Elements invited us to try the multi-course menu with them (note: before the spring produce glory was peaking, hence the root veggies).