When Elements makes its much anticipated reopening this month, the restaurant’s patrons will be privy to a dining experience like almost no other in the country.
Since it closed more than a year ago to relocate to the second floor of the Witherspoon Street building that houses its sibling restaurant, Mistral, almost every aspect of the Elements experience has been examined, reconsidered and altered, if not radically transformed.
Changes include fewer seats (for a more intimate dining experience), menus comprising a set number of courses (no à la carte, but choices within each course) and a pared down wine list. There’s also a new approach to the globally inspired modernist cuisine that has brought acclaim to executive chef Scott Anderson and his longtime aide-de-camp, chef Mike Ryan, since the restaurant, which is co-owned by restaurateur Steve Distler, opened on Bayard Lane in 2008.
Perhaps the most radical change, though, is a new style of service that, along with the restaurant’s smaller size and an open kitchen, aims to further eliminate the barrier between chef and patron.
Not only will guests be in full view of their meals as they’re being prepared, but each dish will be delivered by a cook — theoretically the one who prepared it — who will describe it tableside. Restaurants like Oxheart, in Houston, and Schwa in Chicago are two trendsetters that Elements will be emulating.
Anderson believes Elements will be the first in New Jersey to do it, but he predicts that within 10 years, many more restaurants will adopt the practice. The divide between front-of-the-house, for whom a large part of their compensation is tips, and back-of-the-house, whose compensation by law can’t include tips, is erased. The entire staff gets paid a base salary, and the service charges get divided among them. In lieu of tipping, a 20-percent service charge will be added to checks.
The new menu structure offers two basic options Tuesday through Fridays: a four-course menu, each with three to five options per course, and an expanded chef’s tasting menu of nine to ten courses. On Saturdays, a five-course tasting menu is de rigueur. But with one week’s notice, a grand tasting menu of 17 courses can be ordered for any evening. Prices will be in line with those in the past, Anderson said. The restaurant will serve dinner only and will be closed on Sunday and Monday.
As for the retaurant itself, one dramatic physical change will be apparent the moment guests arrive. An elevator will whisk them upstairs; there is no other public access. The ground floor is given over to Mistral, which opened in 2013, and the new Mistral Bar, which debuted in mid-June this year (see sidebar).
The restaurant’s exterior and two-story elevator tower are clad in natural fieldstone, brushed steel, glass, and sleek, and vertical wood boards — design features reminiscent of Elements’ original space on Bayard Lane. Once inside the restaurant, guests will recognize those same components and cool, modern vibe, which Anderson said should provide “a little bit of a flashback. The feeling should be the same, just a little more intimate.”
Anderson and his core team designed the interior together. That team includes Anderson, 40, and Ryan, 35, both alumni of the legendary Ryland Inn in Whitehouse Station; cooks Staci Lopez, 27, and Karen Ryfinski, 24; and Fia Berisha, who came aboard in April as general manager of both Elements and Mistral.
Lopez, whose background includes working at Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc in Yountville, California, ran the fish station at Elements. The meat station was the domain of Ryfinski, who grew up in Hamilton, studied at the Culinary Institute of America, and was at Ninety Acres in Peapack before joining Elements. Berisha comes directly from Battello in Jersey City and before that, the erstwhile Daryl Wine Bar in New Brunswick.
Lopez, Ryfinski, and Berisha spent much of their hiatus staging at renowned restaurants in the U.S. and abroad, including the Willow Inn on Lummi Island, Washington, Atelier Dominque Crenn in San Francisco and Brae, in Australia.
Anderson said the design has turned out as he had envisioned. Calming earth tones and charcoal gray dominate the color scheme. Local potter John Shedd custom designed the espresso and tea cups as well as the restroom sinks.
As guests emerge from the elevator, they’ll see the open kitchen and the 750-square-foot main dining space that seats just 26 guests, some of them in a glassed-in aerie that is that’s cantilevered out over Witherspoon Street. Its variously sized wood-framed rectangular windows, some tinted in pastels, give it a Mondrian-like appearance.
Only parties of four or fewer will be seated in this dining room. Larger parties will be led down a short hallway to the restaurant’s (otherwise) private dining area, to the smaller of two rooms that can be combined to accommodate private gatherings of up to 40.
The main impetus for the move was financial — to use Elements’ liquor license at Mistral and Mistral bar, to draw downtown traffic, and to reduce overhead costs by supporting one building rather than two. But facilitating private dining was another consideration.
The open design of the Bayard Lane’s upstairs loft ran contrary to what the area’s big pharmaceutical companies wanted for their gatherings. For reasons of confidentiality, Anderson said, “At some point a rule was put into place that private dining has to have four walls and a door.” The old Elements couldn’t meet that criteria, which meant no more big bookings by pharmaceuticals. The new private dining space, which satisfies the new rules, will also be used for Mistral’s private events.
In the open kitchen, along with the thermo circulators, controlled vapor ovens, and other high-tech equipment that have been transferred from the original, is a built-in wood-fire brick hearth.
“A lot of people didn’t realize that at Elements we did a lot of our cooking outside,” Anderson said. “Using two burned-out grills and a smoker.” Anderson calls the hearth a game changer.
“Take something as simple as zucchini puree. Most people either sauté or blanch and then puree the zucchini. The result is pretty one dimensional,” he said. Add smoke and char flavor, and you start building a puree that has a much deeper flavor profile.”
Opting to make the new Elements more intimate has everything to do with the evolution of the cutting-edge, farm-to-table food that Anderson and Ryan create. “In retrospect, I honestly feel that Mike and I started to outgrow the old space,” he said, with a bit of irony. “We were trying to elevate the cuisine by offering 14- or 17-course tasting menus. That got very difficult in an 85-seat restaurant. By the time we closed, Mike and I were doing 35 of these tasting menus on a Saturday night.”
With mere weeks to go to the projected debut, Anderson did not yet have opening menus in place. Although many of the ideas that he and Ryan developed at the first Elements will carry over, dishes per se will not.
“There are parts of dishes I like and may use again, but I don’t have the kind of brain that can lay out a whole bunch of stuff. It comes in bits and pieces,” he said.
Hearing this comment, manager Fia Berisha chuckled. She said she already knows that the kitchen team “will change the menu at 5 p.m. each day anyway.” The primary reason, Anderson said, is that he has to see what base products he has to work with as they arrive each day. “Most of our time this past year has been spent working with individual people to get us the best product. A lot of thought has gone in to making the food even more hyperlocal than before. We’ve worked very closely with our farmers, found more wild edibles, and lobbied our fish guy to get more local fish in.”
Key among the farmers that supply Elements is David Zaback of Z Food Farm in Lawrence. The attention that Zaback lavishes on his product distinguishes him from other purveyors, Anderson said.
“He’s out in the field making sure that he turns his butternut squash over so it doesn’t get that yellow spot. It’s not so much that we need David to grow anything that’s weird or wild or that nobody else has, we want him get the best flavor out of what he grows, bar none,” Anderson said. “Whatever he works on, it’s going to taste better than anybody else’s. He grows the best fennel I’ve ever tasted in my life.”
Anderson is working with his fish purveyor to get a trout hatchery in North Jersey to provide live trout to Elements (his favorite is cherry trout, a small member of the salmon family, so named for its cherry-blossom pink flesh and because its season is spring). He is even working to convince them to raise ayu, one of his current favorites. Ayu, which translates from the Japanese as “sweetfish,” is a relative of smelts.
“We’re finally getting to the point where now we have our own fishermen and, not only that, we have them raise fish to our specifications and we have them kill them the Japanese way so that they die instantly — no thrashing around,” he said. “That way, you get the most pristine fish.”
Elements has even worked with a farmer to develop its own pig breed.The 50-percent Berkshire, 50-percent Guinea hogs weigh in at around 150 lbs. Anderson is now looking into another breed: Chinese Meishan.
Many of the restaurant’s exotic mushrooms come from Princeton’s Shibumi Farm. But an increasing variety comes from foraging. Anderson and Ryan both love to camp, hike, fish, and especially, forage. Among the things Ryan has been finding are sassafras branches, which he incorporates into beef sauce.
“You’re eating a beef dish and also asking, ‘am I tasting root beer?’ and you’re like, ‘nah, that’s impossible.’ But you do, because Mike has balanced out how to get sassafras whatever into that meat sauce,” Anderson said. “There’s so much out there. Just when you think there are no more things out there, I’ll find something and Google it and damn, it turns out to be edible. Our cuisine is just naturally becoming New Jersey-based cuisine.”
A streamlined beverage program is under construction. Anderson said the wine list, which is the domain of Elements’ wine director, Carl Rohrbach, need not be as extensive as in the past. “It will be very food forward, very specific to the food, as will the cocktails and beer and sake,” Anderson said. “Now, does that mean we’re not going to have to have, say, Stag’s Leap and Opus One? Maybe one or two. The two percent of a business brain that I have said we have to have that, but it won’t be the focus.”
Anderson, who has been a semifinalist for a James Beard Award several times, sums up with another bit of irony. “I’ve been saying that by the 10th year we own Elements — and we’re heading into the seventh — I may finally have all my ducks in a row, where I can finally start to cook.”