My fiance, Jim, grew up in Princeton. So when six months into our relationship I packed up all my things and moved from North Jersey to a tiny apartment in Princeton Junction, I figured he’d know where to get a good Sunday brunch. I was wrong. It’s been a sore spot in the otherwise loving affair, but thankfully, with six months to go before our wedding day, the situation has been rectified.
Elements is the place to go for brunch in Princeton; the place, also, to go for lunch, or dinner, or a fine round of drinks. As Jim has been saying since our first visit, “Finally, a New York quality restaurant in Princeton.” If you are like me, a girl who before having her morning coffee finds PJ’s a tad too cheery and Small World a bit too hip, and who prefers her Sunday brunch to involve food that’s just as good as Saturday night’s dinner—not to mention refreshing cocktails, with gin and lillet, to revive her from Saturday night’s drinking—then there’s no better place. Actually, with Element’s play on Steak and Eggs, made with 48-hour short-ribs, I don’t think it matters what kind of person you are: there is no better place.
The restaurant has been open since October of 2008. It’s on 206 just north of the center of Princeton, next to the Shell station. The main dining room is open and not-too-bright during breakfast, with large, cozy tables and booths seats along one wall, a small, thoughtfully stocked bar, and an open kitchen where you can sit for dinner and order the Chef’s tasting, and watch Chef/Owner Scott Anderson (formerly at the Ryland Inn) prepare your dishes.
Jim and I stopped for brunch this Sunday and were thoroughly impressed right from the get-go. A Sunday brunch bread basket is one of the more important bread baskets—you’re out to breakfast (a luxury) and it’s good to be assured that you won’t regret not saving the money and staying home with your box of Cheerios. At Elements, the bread basket includes flaky, buttery biscuits, sweet muffins, foccacia with peppers and onions, and some mean banana bread. There’s also delicious, thick jelly, and good, soft butter.
My policy as a dedicated foodie is to go all out whenever I’m trying a place for the first time, so we had cocktails, appetizers, main courses, and a dessert all on Sunday morning. (We also took a nice long nap Sunday afternoon.) The Juniper Gin, Lillet, Ciontreau and Lemon cocktail I already mentioned was refreshing, light, a little tart, and perfect for a lady in the morning, even if it was cheekily called the Corpse Reviver #2. Jim ordered a single malt scotch cocktail—Ardbeg 10 year, smoked maple liquer, hop bitters—that blew our minds. Ardbeg 10 is one of the peatier scotches out their, so I thought it could be overwhelming in a cocktail, but the whole thing was sweet enough, with the smoked maple, that it balanced out—and didn’t just taste like watered-down scotch. It also went fabulously with the french toast and bacon snack: little maple-soaked toasts topped with candied bacon, sitting next to an egg (“We always tell everyone that it’s a real eggshell”) filled with brioche, bacon custard, and creamy maple foam.
For our appetizers, I had a market salad. As a home-cook, I’m always on the lookout for menu items that I hate preparing—and I hate making salads. From rinsing off the grit to arranging the proper proportions of all the components on each little plate (careful not to overdress!)—it’s just a pain. And yet I’d rather make my own salad any day than eat greens that aren’t as good as what I buy at local farms (I’m lucky to live about ten minutes from Blue Moon Acres, one of the best micro-green growers in the country). Well, I’m not sure where Elements buys its greens (quite possibly Blue Moon), but they were gorgeous. And the salad itself, with pickled vegetables, caviar-like quinioa, and the ‘herdsman’ cheese from Cherry Grove Orchards…if I lived just a little closer to Elements, their $9 market salad would be my daily lunch.
Jim’s beet appetizer was another winner. We were told that it was “a study in beets,” and, as pretentious as that sounds, it really was. There was a beet sponge cake, pickled beets, salt-roasted beets, beet chips. To mellow out the sweetness of the beets, there was also creme fraiche and Fourme d’Ambert, a blue cheese that begs to stand next to a beet. It was as fun as it looks. And Jim hardly shared enough.
But he was gracious enough to split his main course with me, the 48-hour short rib play on Steak and Eggs. I’m not sure I would have been so kind. Those short ribs, cooked for 48-hours sous-vide style, were fork-tender, luscious, and (seared well on the edges) full of flavor. For those of you who cook, it’s food you won’t walk away from thinking “I could’ve done that.” Real upscale quality, but playful, let-your-hair-down style. Also, the potatoes that came with the Steak and Eggs had a lovely garnish of thin strips of sautéed peppers and onions, a beautiful version of the Italian classic.
I had a take on bagel and lox. Standing in for the bagel was a fluffy, rich brioche; for the lox, a nice chunk of just-cooked through salmon, with steelhead roe supplying the salt and oil. There were pickled onions, of course, plus a perfect little salad of micro greens. On the side sat two fried eggs, well peppered and fried and browned along the edges. I don’t think I need to tell you how good it was.
We finished up with a lemon tart, digging into the quivering custard before I even took a picture (those cocktails were no joke!). It had a garnish of toasted almond praline and a brown butter crust, and it came with delicious ice cream to boot. My kind of Sunday morning guilty pleasure.
Yes, Elements sure is a New York-quality restaurant in Princeton…though to be honest you’d have a hard time finding a place this good in New York.
163 Bayard Lane
Princeton, NJ 08540
Dress Code: casual for brunch and lunch, business casual for dinner
Prices: Appetizers in the $10 to $15 range, Mains mostly $25-$36, with a few around $20
The wine list is extensive, the prices range from high $20’s to near $500. Many bottles in the $30-$40 range. The beer list is full of interesting high-quality brews. And I think you know I loved the cocktails. They are all $12.
Robin Damstra is Jersey Bites Regional Editor for Hunterdon and Mercer Counties. She is a Douglass College graduate, where she majored in English. She met her fiancé, Jim, in 2006 and began teaching herself to cook around the same time. In 2007, she started her food blog, Caviar and Codfish. She currently lives in Stockton, New Jersey.
And, if she keeps eating breakfasts like this, she’s going to gain 50 pounds. (tee hee)