Mistral: Another Winner from the Elements Team

I’m a huge fan of Elements and Scott Anderson, their executive chef. It is my favorite restaurant in New Jersey. The food is creative, elegant and just damn good. But, Elements is more of a special occasion restaurant, not somewhere you (or at least I) would go a couple of times a month. With the opening of Mistral, they’ve now got the more casual, frequent dining end of the market covered with food that is notches above most places.

From their website – “Mistral: The name evokes a sure Mediterranean wind bringing clear water and fresh weather to those sailing upon the sea. Now, Restaurant Mistral offers chef Scott Anderson the chance to create ever-changing, seasonal offerings that can be adjusted to the prevailing winds of his unsurpassed creativity and taste.” Scott Anderson is the executive chef, though he spends most of his time at Elements with the driving force on a daily basis being Ben Nerenhausen, the chef de cuisine who joined the team from The Restaurant at Meadowood in St. Helena. Both chefs made the semi-finalist list for James Beard Awards, justifiably signifying their pedigree.

The concept of Mistral is global tapas/small plates. This concept is so right now and so perfect. I love the idea of trying a few bites of lots of different things. It’s pretty much the way I eat now when I go out or entertain at home. The global part of the concept relates to both chefs international experiences. The melding of all these international flavor elements is so uniquely American – essentially it defines what new American cuisine is about, making the food scene really exciting.

I’ve been to Mistral a few times now, and every time I come away raving about the food. While everything isn’t perfect, the bulk of items are outstanding. I really don’t have enough superlatives for the food. The menu is constructed by origin – fields, land, water and changes frequently. If it’s on the menu you have to try the36 hour beef cheeks with bone marrow. It’s unbelievably tender and tasty. A true experience. Also the southern cassoulet with prawns, andouille and corn bread is really good, with the prawns in the dish especially memorable. I’m also a fan or the French onion custard – I’d call it an experience but I already said that about the beef cheek. Now some of the misses – I’m a huge fan of pork belly but the Hungarian pork belly with the smoked potatoes and braised cabbage doesn’t work for me. The potato has too strong of a smoke floor which overpowers the dish.

My preferred seat is at the counter in front of the kitchen where you can see all the action. It’s theater. You can literally reach out and touch the cooks. The whole restaurant is modern and casual. It’s become such a popular destination that the restaurant is crammed all the time. Fortunately they are building a covered outdoor patio which should be ready for the warmer weather. I can’t wait to spend frequent spring, summer and fall evenings there.

The restaurant doesn’t have a liquor license yet but I hear that it’s coming soon but the hostess says that bringing your own bottle of wine even after they get their license won’t be frowned upon. They do have some interesting juices at present to make up for the lack of alcoholic drinks.

Service is great, the servers are knowledgeable and eager to please without fawning over you. At my last visit with my son a few complimentary items were sent over by the hostess and kitchen to make up for having to wait for our table. A really nice gesture.

Mistral along with Elements are two restaurants that not only have elevated the dining scene in Princeton, but also in New Jersey.


Perfectly Cooked Steak Made Sous Vide

My sous vide cooking experiments have continued and I think I’m finally getting the hang of it. Sous vide cooking is all about precision and super tenderness for meats – the perfect combination for steak. I like my steaks medium rare and when I make them at home I sometimes end up with medium when I don’t mean to. Making it sous vide you get it exactly how you want it since you set the temperature at the doneness you want and it just can’t overcook no matter how long you leave it there.

The process is pretty straight forward though it takes some time but the results are so worth it. My preferred steak is a prime strip and the temperatures listed below are for a strip steak. It varies by type of steak so if you are cooking sous vide then make sure you get the temperatures for the right type of steak. Here’s the step by step guide to cooking steak sous vide:

1. Season your steak with salt and pepper
2. Vacuum seal each steak individually
3. Start the sous vide and heat the water to the desired temperature. For rare 126 degrees F, medium rare 133, pink 135, medium 144. I’m not even going to list well done because that is just plain wrong. This time I did mine to pink because one of my dinner guests is more of a pink rather than a medium rare person
4. Place the steaks in the sous vide container. I have started using a plastic container I purchased on Amazon and created my own hanger system using skewers and clips so that I could space out the steaks to ensure even distribution. Probably a little OCD but what the heck

Steak in sous vide

5. I left the steaks in the sous vide for 4 hours, but I could have left it for less time. You just need to leave it long enough to get the internal temperature up to the desired doneness
6. When done, remove and dry the steaks with a paper towel
7. Sear the steak at a very high heat in a pan or with a blow torch (my next acquisition). Do it quickly, all you want is the outside to brown and not cook through
8. Serve

Final Steak

The steak turned out unbelievably tender. I could have cut it with a butter knife. And it tasted amazing.

Ok, so the process may seem a bit convoluted but trust me, so worth it. The real advantages of cooking a steak sous vide are that its perfect doneness all the way through. There are no overdone or underdone bits, a point I tried very hard to explain to Divya. And the other benefit is that you get a better yield from the steak, meaning that more of it is at the doneness you want. When grilling or cooking in the pan, you end up with more of the steak well done because of the direct heat application whereas in a sous vide, you are only searing briefly so its a very thin brown layer.


Steamed Pork Belly Bun Sous Vide

I was introduced to pork belly buns at David Chang’s Momofuku a few years ago with my Belgian friends Johan and Jan. We had just devoured a 5lb pork shoulder and had to order the pork belly buns when a waitress was taking an order to another table. I’ve had a pork belly obsession for years. My son and I absolutely love all types of pork belly. I probably have more pork belly recipes on this blog than any other site out there. Back to Momofuku, those pork belly buns were absolutely amazing. The man is a genius! This dish is one of those dishes that you never stop thinking about or talking about. Even all these years later, I still think of them longingly. As to David Chang being a genius, you just have to watch “The Mind of a Chef” season 1 on PBS. I love how thoughtful he is about what he cooks and the series really delves into his philosophy and approach to food.

I recently acquired an Anova Sous Vide which may be my favorite kitchen gadget. Since then I’ve been experimenting with Sous Vide cooking and I think I’m getting the hang of it. I also picked up Modernist Cuisine at Home which has a ton of Sous Vide recipes. The book is intimidating and beautiful. So worth it. Now with Sous Vide in hand, I thought I would attempt the pork belly buns. I found a recipe on seriouseats and bought pre-made buns from my local Asian market. While not quite David Chang quality, they came out really great. I would totally make them again.

Here’s a link to the recipe and a couple of pictures.

Pork Belly Broiled

Pork Belly Bun


My New Sous Vide Obsession

I first read about Sous Vide cooking in a NY Times article about this “new” French cooking technique being used in high end restaurants back in the 90s. I was intrigued but as a home cook it was beyond me to fathom that it could even end up in the home and I thought nothing more of it. Then a few years ago I started hearing more chefs talk about it on cooking shows, especially Top Chef along with the growth of molecular gastronomy which I just can’t get into. This time I was way more intrigued by Sous Vide cooking. I also heard that home equipment was beginning to be available but expensive. The good news is that in the last few years prices have come down and it’s become way more affordable, and now with the introduction of Anova’s Sous Vide immersion heater at $199 it’s very do-able.

More recently I’ve been trying to improve my cooking technique and add finesse. Making a perfectly cooked medium rare steak or mouth meltingly tender short ribs seemed so worth the effort of trying. And then I started getting obsessive about making fried chicken but I’m super paranoid about frying chicken and not burning the outside but still making sure the chicken is fully cooked. It occurred to me that I could sous vide the chicken, ensuring that it’s cooked and perfectly moist and then all I have to do is fry it at a high temperature and make it super crunchy on the outside. That decided it, I had to have a sous vide!

I’ve looked into a couple of sous vide units and almost purchased the sous vide supreme for around $350 but as I was looking into alternatives, I came across a new unit from Anova priced at $199. The nice people at Anova sent me a demo which I have been playing around with for a few weeks now and have made fried chicken, short ribs, pork chops and pork belly – all things that benefit from low and slow cooking. The keys for a good sous vide are consistent, accurate temperature (you do not want fluctuations in water temperature as you are cooking) and a strong pump so that the water circulates evenly throughout the pot. The controls for temperature and time are easy to use. So far I have found the Anova to be precise with a good circulator. Water heats up pretty quickly and does not fluctuate at all, even during my 54 hour short rib sous vide. I’m actually surprised how well it’s worked for the price.

Here’s what I’ve learnt so far from my cooking experiments. By no means has it been perfect. Properly vacuum sealing is really important. I’ve struggled a little with this due to wet marinades. I sous vided 2 bags of short ribs and the one that was sealed better and had all the air removed turned out more tender. Also, make sure your cuts of meat are evenly sized and since sous vide cooking doesn’t render fat, trim all excess fat. BTW, you do have to sear the meat otherwise you’ll end with unattractive, pale meat. No one wants pale meat.

I still have a lot of things I want to try and continue to improve my sous vide technique. But the good news is that my last 2 attempts at cooking, the fried chicken and pork belly turned out perfectly. As I’ve correct my early errors and made adjustments, the food is getting better.

I will start posting recipes for cooking sous vide over the coming weeks.


Princeton Restaurants Revisited – A round up of what’s good and what isn’t

My first ever blog post was about Princeton restaurants, it was more a gripe about the lack of a decent food scene than a review of restaurants. Since I wrote that post and lamented the real lack of good choices in the area, a lot has changed. Thankfully for the better! Back then I couldn’t understand how an area that seems to have the right mix of ingredients for a great restaurant scene didn’t have much to offer. Princeton had and has local farms that can sustain a great locavore movement, covering the gamut from meat, veges, fruit and dairy, an affluent base of potential customers, an international community driven by the university and relative proximity to both New York and Philadelphia. Despite this we were stuck with a series of mediocre bars, dated restaurants and restaurants that catered to the student population. My one standout was Witherspoon Grill which was a relative newcomer at the time.

Over the last 6 years since that post many new restaurants have opened. And the great news is that you can now find restaurants that are innovative, on trend and generally much better. In the past year alone Mistral, Agricola, Despana and North End Bistro have opened, adding to the already good options of Elements, Eno Terra, Mediterra (yes, Mediterra has been around since my last blog but the food is worth writing about now) Nomad Pizza and yes, Witherspoon Grill. Collectively we now have a real restaurant scene in Princeton with variety and overall good quality.

What follows is by no means a comprehensive list but rather restaurants that have stood out for me for one reason or another, good or bad. There are still many restaurants I have yet to try including the reputedly wonderful Peacock Inn. Ok, here goes and in no particular order:

Eno Terra – One of the 3 restaurants in NJ that are in the TOP 25 NJ restaurants annual list in NJ Monthly. This is one of my favorite places. It’s Italian, locally sourced and has a great bar. You can eat in the main dining room and also the bar area which has a full dinner menu. The food is generally good or very good. They have a great selection of wines. I’m prefer sitting in the bar area, just a little more casual and the staff is great and knowledgeable. They do have a happy hour menu, not exactly wings and fries but much more refined and much better.

Salt Creek Grill – American Bar and Grill. This is a tale of 2 cities. The bar is extremely popular with the local businesses. Dow Jones is literally across the street and we’d all end up at the happy hour here. They have different deals during happy hour including a cheap eats menu, half priced wine, etc. The sliders, SCG Chips are my favorites. The Goat Cheese dip isn’t bad either. Unfortunately I can’t say much good about the main restaurant menu – it’s over-priced and the food is bland. The only thing I really enjoy is the grilled chicken with succotash. This explains why the restaurant is usually empty and the bar is packed. But, I love the bar with it’s huge wooden table in the center and the staff there is great. Huge call out to Chad and Stefanie.

Pind – Relatively new addition to scene. Used to be an old Charlie Brown’s which was converted to an Indian Restaurant and sports bar. They have separate entrances. I haven’t eaten in the restaurant where the food is described as “Eclectic Indian”. What the heck does that mean? I have been to the bar a couple of times. It’s dark, the menu has the usual American bar eats but also some Indian American fusion stuff that fails to work. While Eno Terra and Salt Creek are packed and a stone’s throw away, this place has a few die-hards and not much more. This place has potential but needs a fundamental rethink. If the owners are reading this, email me and we can talk.

North End Bistro – Global comfort food is what the website calls it. The concept is great – burgers, tacos, steaks, meatballs, pasta, mac & cheese, mussels and a lot more. BTW, love the French Fries! The food is unpretentious (comfort) and generally well done. There are hits and misses but overall the food is decent. I’ve been about 4 times since it opened and while not wowed, I haven’t been too disappointed either. The place is BYOB though they do have a selection of wine from a local winery which works in a pinch.

Agricola – The opening of this restaurant was the big event in town. It occupies the space previously inhabited by the 100 year old Lahiere’s which shut down about a year ago. The space is gorgeous, absolutely love the space. The food concept is hyper local with most of the food ingredients coming from the owner’s farm. The whole local thing was great a couple of years ago but seems like everyone is doing it now. I love the idea of sustaining local farms but it almost seems gimmicky now, more marketing concept that anything else. The food itself was good, not great. Polished but no wow factor. Service was impersonal and not as refined as you would expect based on the environment and prices. I haven’t tried the bar menu yet, but plan to. Overall, decent, good but over-priced.

Witherspoon Grill – This place has been around a while now. It was the shiny new place when I first moved into the area and I’ve always liked it. The food is good, consistent with great service and reasonable prices. The menu is steakhouse style with a good seafood selection and they probably have the best burger in the area. Absolutely brilliant! After taking some time away from Witherspoon Grill the last few years I have rediscovered it and lately have gone quite often, either for lunch or dinner.

Mediterra – This is another restaurant I’ve stayed away from for a while but have started going to more often, particularly the $2 tapas menu during happy hour. Over the years the chef has changed frequently so the food has been inconsistent. Currently, the food is decent, not great though I am partial to the paella. They have a good wine selection and a killer location by Palmer Sq.

Teresa’s Café – This along with Mediterra and Eno Terra it is owned by the Momo Brothers who also own The Terra Momo Bread Company, a local bakery which I can’t warm to. I just expect better bread and croissants. Back to Teresa’s, it’s essentially a pizza and pasta place. Decent place to hit those carb cravings, along with a very reasonably priced wine list. It’s good for an occasional meal.

Element’s – To me, this is the best restaurant in town and possibly NJ. I think Scott Anderson deserves at least a Michelin Star. The food is inventive, beautiful and WOW! Great service, great food, beautiful restaurant. My only gripe has been the too small bar area, but they recently expanded it. This is a great special occasion place, or if you want something familiar but different and really well done. Have I said how great this place is? Love it!

Mistral – This is Scott Anderson’s new place. The food is global tapas in a BYOB setting (come on, get a liquor license). One word – WOW! The food is simply amazing. It’s more casual than Element’s but there is nothing casual about the food. The prices are less intimidating than Element’s and has to be on everyone’s must try list. They’ve recently had some good reviews, including one from the NY Times. Trust me, go check it out.

Metro North – I like the décor of this place, particularly the bar area. It’s significantly better since it changed owners a few years ago, with the old owners giving it a confused identity, but overall not a go-to place if culinary experience is a requirement for dining out. I’ve been here a couple of times and unlikely to return.

One 53 – This is local neighborhood restaurant and a real welcome addition in Rocky Hill. There’s a nice mix of steaks, seafood and pasta along with a number of daily additions. The pork chop is unbelievably good, probably the best pork chop I have ever eaten. And love their Cassoulet. The restaurant is always packed with regulars, which says a lot.

Nomad Pizza – This may be the best damn pizza you can eat anywhere. I’m not joking, it really is absolutely fabulous. The pizzas are thin crust made in a brick oven. Along with pizzas they have salads. I’m even thinking about cutting back on eating pizza anywhere else and just going here every month and indulging myself – it’s that good.

Alchemist & Barrister – What can I say about this place? It’s been here forever and it’s just plain awful. Seriously, how can you screw up nachos? Just awful.

Despana – Tapas and paella café that opened a few months ago. You can also buy Spanish groceries here. I’ve tried the tapas and haven’t had a chance to try the paella yet but will be back to try it soon. The tapas weren’t great, including the patatas bravas that had way too much garlicky sauce. Won’t be back for the tapas but will try the paella.