So, after abandoning our efforts to make our 9:15 reservation at Lincoln in NYC, we decided to stay relatively local and check out the new Menu format at Elements in Princeton.
Now with a 4 course, 6 course, and Chef's Tasting menu, the experience in my opinion has been truly elevated. You can still order any of the courses a la carte (although the prices are pretty high to do so), but with the smallest of the menus at $69 and the larger six course menu at $89, those appeared to be the better route. I imagine the Chef's tasting is similar to the one they usually would do in the kitchen.
Before getting to the food, Justin has really developed an awesome wine list with an amazing depth and some awesome values, especially for a restaurant program in NJ. With options for someone looking to splurge (Sine Qua Non at $495 or the venerable Domaine Romanee-Conti '02 Grands Echezeaux at $1900), I was more impressed by some of the better valued and more obscure offerings, with about fifteen options from Corsica, Languedoc-Roussillon, and Provence as well as some inexpensive bottles blessed with some more bottle age, like the '90 Villa de Vetrice, Chianti Rufina at $89. After a glass of bubbly, my wife decided she was going to be drinking much more than a glass, so we opted to try and pair a white wine by the glass for the first few lighter courses, and then move into a half bottle of red.
Trying to peruse the options for white wine's by the glass, we were offered 1994, Schloss Schonborn Kabinett by the glass and easily accepted. With our meal was off to a great start, we decided on the six course menu.
First noticeable change was after the usual bread assortment, we had three different amuse bouches. While the details are a little hazy, I know it began with a perfect raw tuna sashimi dish, followed by a really tasty vegetable egg roll, and ending with a Squid Ink Croquette with Mizuna (our waiter stumbled over this last one, but I will tell you - it was delicious)
HAMACHI SASHIMI, Japanese Plum, Macadamia Panna Cotta, Radish
Like most of the raw preparations at Elements, this was great, with enough texture and crunch from the radish and the plums to balance out the delicacy of the sea food. While Hamachi would not be my first choice, preferring crudo preparations with a more flavorful fish, the balance of these flavors made for a perfect introduction to the 6 course meal
SOURDOUGH AGNOLOTTI, Chicken of the Woods, Yogurt, Pimpernel
My favorite dish of the night, this dish was entirely unique and something I had never had before. The tartness of the sourdough in the aglonotti, combined with the richness of the mushrooms and Yogurt, made for a memorable and raveworthy pasta preparation, demonstrating the kitchen's talent in tasting aggressive flavor profiles and combining them in a way that somehow just works. After licking my plate clean, I hoped to bum some of her leftovers but she had beat me to it.
MADAI, Arugula, Oyster Mushrooms, Puffed Rice
Another great exercise in texture, this fish preparation, coated with puffed rice, and paired with oyster mushrooms was a close second. The mushrooms were cooked to perfection, and in many ways, were the show stopper, but having the puffed rice over the fish to provide that textural contrast almost served as a foil for crispy fish skin. They poured a sardine broth tableside, further amplifying the umami flavors, while no single component overwhelmed the dish
At this point, we switched to the half bottle of red, enjoying a bottle of 1993 Ridge Montebello ($120), which opened up beautifully.
STONYBROOK MEADOWS DUROC PORK, Peekytoe Crab, cabbage, New Zealand Spinach
Elements has always been great at cooking pork. With a crab foam on top, though, and the bitter cabbage greens on the bottom, this was my least favorite of the courses, with the cabbage, for me, overshadowing the crab, and the pork, while beautifully cooked, somehow lost in the middle. I know my wife liked it, and others appeared to be enjoying it as well, and it was a fine dish - but it didn't impress me as much as the rest of the meal did (tall order)
LAVA LAKE LAMB, beet, saskatoon berry, black trumpets
A simple preparation, the lamb was beautifully cooked to a medium rare, and a perfect end to the savory components of our meal.
For desserts, my wife opted for the KUNIK with Whipped Honey, herbs and anise bread, and out came an unbelievable slab of aged goat cheese, with its accompaniments, for a simple, but delectable plated cheese course (judging by the one taste I was allowed, this is something that for cheese lovers may be worth passing up dessert for....)
I had the OPEN FACED SWEET CORN ICE CREAM SANDWICH with Peaches, lemon thyme, black pepper, and caramel, which proved to be innovative and not overly sweet. My only issue with it was of my own fault, having paired it with the 1998 Chateau Rieussec Sauternes which ended up being too sweet for the dessert.
Ending with some petit fours (including a scrumptious chocolate chip brownie, coconut macaron, oatmeal cream cake, and a chocolate chip cookie dough ball, we settled the bill and began the trip back home.
All in all, an excellent meal with great wines, at a great value for what you get. Naturally, at the price point with these new menus almost directly matching up to Nicholas's three course and 7 course meals, the comparisons will once again begin.
To me? Elements is fresh, new, and always changing - while some preps may be better than others week to week, the new menu format, combined with the amuses is more exciting. The overall experience with an awesome staff and much less pretentiousness, a far superior wine and cocktail program, and a beautiful yet relaxed atmosphere, pushes Elements over the top. Having always really enjoyed my meals at Nicholas, I've left the last few perfectly satisfied, but a tad uninspired. Walking out of Elements last night, I was taking the whole meal in and felt excited about the new menu format and the potential of things to come, relishing the sourdough aglonotti and the croquette amuse, knowing albeit bittersweet, that in a few weeks, these dishes would be replaced with other new and exciting options.
That ability to keep things fresh and new is what keeps us coming back.