For many years, my husband and I would celebrate our wedding anniversary with the gourmand tasting menu at Ryland Inn in Whitehouse, NJ. Among Ryland Inn’s many honors and accolades, Chef-Owner Craig Shelton had won four James Beard Awards, and the establishment earned two “Extraordinary” ratings from the New York Times. The Inn’s estate had its own beautiful, well-tended garden to provide ingredients to the restaurant. The tasting menu was a journey of familiar and new flavors, presented as little works of art. The wine parings were impeccable.
Don’t go looking for it now. It’s been closed since February 2007, when a crack was discovered in a load-bearing beam, and then a pipe burst in the basement. The historic farmhouse has been on the market several times. Chef Shelton is now working as the corporate chef of Doc’s of Sparta, a steakhouse, which boggles the mind. I haven’t been to Doc’s, so I guess I’ll just be boggled until I get there. (Last I heard, Doc’s will honor Ryland Inn gift certificates.) Needless to say, I miss Ryland Inn very much.
In early 2009, I read this review [.pdf] of elements, opened in October of 2008. It was a good, though not stellar, review of the cuisine, and I was more than ready to go to a place that was being run by three former Ryland Inn employees. Clearly they listened to the reviews since they opened, further refined their work, and are answering by delivering a top-notch dining experience.
Decor and Ambiance:
elements’ exterior and interior are inviting and bright. Nothing to ooh or ah or catch your breath over. Elements are appropriately represented in the modern design – stone, wood, metal – that provide a clean canvas for the cuisine. The atmosphere is smart casual; dressed-up jeans would not be inappropriate. elements is more about comfort and pleasing the senses than being a place to Be Seen.
We arrived early to try a cocktail at the bar. The bar is tiny, it has only four seats, meant specifically for having a brief cocktail before sitting for dinner, or waiting a moment if your table isn’t ready. It’s not a sit-and-hang bar, although I would be sure (in my wildest dreams) to have my name on a plaque on one of the stools if I lived anywhere nearby. The bartender, Mattias, is courteous, friendly, and passionate about spirits. I commented to my husband after our dinner that he really is more of a chef than a mixologist or bartender, and we found out later his title is indeed Bar Chef. Excellent.
Mattias works with his co-bar chef to create a cocktail menu that is as intriguing as the cuisine. In addition to classic cocktails like the Sazerac and the French 75, elements has some interesting offerings of their own. I settled on the “krahn lychee,” a mix of DH Krahn gin, lychee, grapefruit, ginger, and chili, served with, be-still my heart, two lychee. My husband had the “elder gin cooler,” Hendricks gin, elderflower, club soda, on the rocks. Yes, we are gin people. Both the cocktails are cool and refreshing, really perfect summer drinks. The spice in the Krahn Lychee has a pleasant kick, not at all burning.
After dinner we stopped by the bar to play with Mattias some more. He introduced us to an excellent 15 y.o. Irish Whiskey, and an Allspice Dram, and then the most fun thing of all, his very own lardo-infused Canadian Whiskey. Seriously, lardo infused. It was bacon Whiskey! I wish we had more time to spend with him; he’s incredibly knowledgeable and so enthusiastic that you can’t help but catch his excitement for good libations.
Menu (with wine pairing)
dom viux pressoir brut rose, saumur, france nv
Him: Kindai kanpachi – yogurt, nectarine, smoked trout roe
Me (menu substitution): Kindai tuna tartare – white soy, scallion, ginger
bernard defaix, petit chablis 2007crispy sweetbreads – ancho, smoked agave, zucchini, jalapeño
dom juillot, mercurey 2005
housemade cavatelli – fava beans, lamb bacon, grana padano
dom chartron, puligny montrachet 2006
local mushrooms – hen egg, veal reduction, summer truffle
dom arnoux, chorey les beaune 2005
Griggstown pheasant – jersey corn, tomatillo, avocado, potato
dom seguin manuel, lavieres 1er cru, savigny-les-beaune 2006
trio of Valley Shepherd cheeses
chateau vari, rsv du chateau, monbazillac, 2003
Not on the tasting menu, but on the regular appetizer menu, was the “housemade Mangalitsa charcuterie,” which we paired with the rose brut simply because we like kicking things off with a sparkling wine, and the rose brut is very pretty with a strong enough palate to hold up to pig.
And so the tasting menu began. I asked for a substitute for the kanpachi (which request was granted without the blink of an eye, by the way, nice touch). I’m not a big fan of very fishy flavors and thought the roe might be too much for me, but I do like tuna tartare. It was our first introduction to Kindai, which was elegantly presented. The fish has a bright clean flavor, and hardly needs much to accompany it. The wasabi was a pleasant spicy note that didn’t overwhelm the flavor of the fish.
Crispy sweetbreads were perfectly prepared, light and just slightly crispy, with a wonderful hot and sweet sauce, garnished with fried shallots.
I read that Chef Anderson sourced his cavatelli maker from eBay. Although we felt the cavatelli may have been a little *too* to-the-tooth, the beans were fresh, the housemade lamb bacon had a pleasant sweetness, and I was thrilled to have grana padano rather than parmesan. There’s nothing wrong with parmesan (or any cheese for that matter), but I’m a fan in particular of the flavor and texture of grana padano.
The local mushrooms with egg, veal reduction, and summer truffle, is just what you’d expect in upscale comfort food. The egg yolk thickens the veal reduction to make a delicious sauce, and the earthy fragrance of truffles…well, it’s truffles [insert swoon].
I have been a fan of Griggstown’s poultry (and their pot pie) since I found them at Morristown Farmers Market (more about Griggstown in a later post). The pheasant was prepared two ways, breast on a cream corn sauce [more swooning here], and a dark meat timbale atop tomatillo and avocado, much like a guacamole. I haven’t had a flavor combination like it. It was sweet and meaty, tangy and rich.
Lastly was a trio of Valley Shepherd cheeses. I love ending a meal with cheese, but it’s often so hard to understand what they’re serving (sometimes I think the server doesn’t know and just mutters a bunch of French-sounding stuff), and when you do understand, it’s cheeses that one can’t easily obtain. Alternatively, one will be served a cheese plate that is nothing more than a hard, a soft, and a medium-textured bland “bleh” with toast and grapes and browning pears. So it was a nice change to end with cheeses that I’m familiar with (more on Valley Shepherd in a later post too). We had not had the blue before, so that was a treat.
I won’t get into the other wines. Suffice to say they were very good accompaniments to the food. We were fortunate to be dining on a night they were featuring wines from Burgundy. My absolute favorite was the dom arnoux, a medium-bodied, ripe cherry wine, that demands something delicious to be eaten with it. Done!
The service here is well orchestrated, efficient, friendly and warm without hovering. Not a detail was left out: Table cleared and new service for each plate, wine served on-time with each course (waiting for wine at a tasting is aggravating), good descriptions of both wine and food. Appropriate questions were asked. For instance, when we asked about a spice in the first course, our server (whose name, forgive me, escapes me at the moment) asked if we had any issues with spicy food as the next course featured heat – he knew the menu, and had the common sense to ask.
We easily recognized our sommelier (and elements general manager) from our times at Ryland Inn. It was lovely to hear someone explaining wines without resorting to too much obscure winespeak, and clearly describing the facts: where they come from, what flavors there are, and how is it going to go with the food.
But the thing that pleased me most was watching the teamwork. There is an obvious hierarchy on the floor; busser, server, sommelier, manager, host, etc. However, if someone saw something that needed doing, they did it. There is nothing more infuriating than watching a server or a host not clear or refill water because, “it’s the bus’ job,” or “it’s not my table.” There was none of that here.
Between the food and the service, the overall feeling of being in it together, at one point I burst out, “I want to work here!” OK, calm down, do I really want to work on the line? No, not really, but I can’t think of a better place to get a top-notch education in fine cuisine, how to run a restaurant, and how to work as a team.
At one point I found myself wondering why this place was in Princeton, next to a gas station (in fact, elements resides in what used to be the service station for that gas station, really!), and not in New York City. And then I became so very very grateful that it’s not in New York because then we’d never get a table. It is also clearly important to them that they be able to procure local goods and work closely with their purveyors. I wouldn’t change a thing.
We are very much looking forward to a return visit for our anniversary. Next time it will be the Chef’s Table!
Oh, and if this post seems overly long, well, we were there for four-and-a-half hours. I would have been perfectly happy to stay another four.
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