This is the Barkeepers, a feature in which Eater meets the fine ladies and gentlemen behind the bar at some of the world's hottest cocktail parlors.
[Photo: Courtesy Jamie Dodge/Elements]
Since opening in 2008, chef Scott Anderson's Princeton restaurant Elements has enjoyed its status as one of the most celebrated restaurants in New Jersey. But this Fall, the "interpretive American" spot put more muscle behind its bar program, renovating the once four-seat bar (which functioned essentially as a waiting room for diners) into a 10-seat space to better showcase the creative cocktails dreamed up by bar manager Jamie Dodge.
"I first started off as the opening part-time bartender," says Dodge, who fell into self-described "small little clique" of chefs who, like Anderson, worked at the Beard-winning and much-lamented Hunterdon County restaurant Ryland Inn. When opening bar manager Mattias Hagglund left in 2011, Dodge stepped up to craft a menu that's both unexpected and attuned to chef Anderson's local and seasonal ethos. "It's become more eclectic," Dodge says. "We go for more boutique-style items behind the bar to play around with." Dodge recently chatted with Eater about New Jersey's emerging craft cocktail scene, the importance of creativity (it involves kombucha and constructive criticism), and floats a rumor about Elements' potential upcoming move (don't worry, it's staying very close to home).
I wanted to ask you about craft cocktails in New Jersey. While doing research about your cocktail program, I noticed most of the headlines written within the past couple years are along the lines of: "Creative Cocktails Have Arrived in NJ." Is it really that new?
I would say so. There are more now, but there aren't a lot of straight-up craft cocktail bars where you can walk in and say, "I'm looking for a strong gin cocktail that's not a Negroni. Make something for me." That's kind of something I like to offer people. They'll say, "I'll have a Cosmo," and I'll say, "Well, do you want to try something different? Do you ever drink gin?" I'll always try gin first, on people who drink vodka. People are like, "Oh, you have over 30 gins? How many different vodkas do you have?" Probably six or seven. So I definitely try to sway people away from the vodka crowd and turn them onto gin or a light rum cocktail, just try and create something for them, which people find special.
"I think New Jersey is being a bit more open-minded. People are more excited to change their minds or try new things."
Are people more receptive to that now than when Elements first opened?
Definitely. It's definitely swayed some of the local patrons away from the vodka tonic or a gin and tonic into other cool things. They'll be like, "Surprise me, Jamie. What are you making today?" It's just fun.
What do you think is behind the new interest?
I mean, it's a passion of mine, just playing with ingredients. A lot of times, I'll have a couple cooks in the back name three ingredients, and I'll try to make something with that. So I think about it, put a couple bottles in front of me on the bar, and work on things. And it comes out great, or sometimes you've got to work on it more. I think New Jersey is being a bit more open-minded. People are more excited to change their minds or try new things.
Behind the bar. [Photo: Facebook]
For someone who's never been to Elements, how would you describe the bar crowd on an average Friday or Saturday?
It's really kind of all over the place. We do not get a whole lot of Princeton University students, but we do get a younger crowd, certainly after grad school, stuff like that. We do a lot of work with the different departments, professors. On the weekends, it's more of a leisurely crowd, which is great: people from all over New Jersey, a lot of people from Pennsylvania. We get a lot of people from New York City and Philly. We're definitely starting to get more [of that crowd] than we were earlier because we're more well known. People are filtering from farther away to enjoy the experience.
Has the recent renovation changed the crowds at all?
"Now, it's more welcoming: People feel like they can just come to the bar at Elements."
We doubled the size, essentially, for seating. Now we can have up to 10 seats, and people standing around, too: There's a little foyer in front of the restaurant where you can chill out and have cocktails. And it definitely starts off, as we open, [with] people at the bar, which is fantastic. I think the new bar renovation makes it really welcoming. Before, there were only four seats there, it was kind of like first-come, first-serve. Now people feel like they can just come to the bar at Elements, not like they have to go to the bar for just one cocktail and then go to their table. We definitely get a lot more people eating and chillin' and spending a lot more time at the bar. It just seems natural, too, the bar expansion, like it should have always been there.
Are most bar guests also dinner guests?
We get people coming in just for a couple cocktails and bar bites. We also offer the full chef's tasting at the bar. It's the whole gamut. We get people doing just a couple bites, and the person next to them could be doing a 15-course chef's tasting with beverage pairing, which is great.
Tell me a little about, if you can, the process that goes behind creating a new drink. How does experimentation start?
I'll be in the shower and I'll think of something, and I'll come to work, put it on the bar, look around, and think, "What can go with that?" For instance, we're going into citrus season, and we get in some awesome, crazy, eclectic citruses. Right now, we have fresh yuzus from California. So Scotty and the kitchen are zesting them and juicing them, and I'll dehydrate them and use them to make bitters. It kind of goes from there: Start off with one thing, kind of build, and then it's the snowball effect. I'll just have fun with it. That's one thing I'm pretty good at: Looking at one thing on the bar, looking around, putting some things on the bar, and then I'll have eight ingredients in front of me and put together a drink.
Is there a lot of back-and-forth between you and chef Scott?
Yeah, not only Scott but my sous chef, Michael Ryan. They'll bring in things and be like, "We're only going to use this part of it. See what you can do with the rest of it." We definitely have a harmonious union, you could say, of not wanting to waste anything. I always ask for constructive criticism from my staff. I'll put something together, have everyone taste it, have the kitchen taste it. Sometimes it's good on the first shot, but it's always a work in progress. Constructive criticism is a good thing. You always try and work off it.
Do you have an example of something you're working on right now?
I'm really excited, actually, I'm about to pull an apple cider and jalapeño kombucha that we have on the bar. The jalapeño really came through and I'm going to be playing with that later tonight. We've been doing a lot of stuff with house-made kombuchas. The last one I made was really cool; it was a house-made cola syrup kombucha. We're also doing our own tinctures and different bitters and stuff and always incorporating those. But it's hard to say what one thing is really pulling me forward. I just like to keep it fresh [and] always work with different things. Right now, I'm working on a couple cocktails to put on next week.
Tell me about your favorite drink on the menu right now.
On the current menu, I would say the Log Yard Drive. We're big fans of and I'm good friends with Todd Hardie, owner of Caledonia Spirits up in Northern Vermont. Todd's been a beekeeper for 47 years, and he started up a distillery because he wanted to do something different with his raw honey. So he created a vodka made with his raw honey, a gin which is corn-based and finished with raw honey, and he works with local guys up in Northern Vermont and lower Canada to get fresh elderberries. He makes a delicious elderberry cordial, which he infuses raw honey into. So, the base [of the cocktail] is his gin, which is absolutely delicious, a little bit of the house-made cola kombucha that I'm making, some Dolin Blanc vermouth, house-made tonic syrup, and this really cool liqueur coming from Brooklyn called Sorel, which gives nice Fall/Wintery spices like clove, hibiscus, and ginger. And it is served cold, but it's one of those drinks that's just soothing and really comforting. And Log Yard Drive is their address, up in Vermont.
How do you source small-batch stuff like that?
"I like looking for those different ingredients that other people in our area aren't using."
I like to keep my ears open. Our purveyors know I'm looking for that stuff. I always ask, "Did you get anything I should know about this week?" One of those things about this industry is you have to constantly be out and about. I go to Philly quite often, go to cocktail bars and check out what they're doing. I go to New York every once in a while. But I like looking for those different ingredients that other people in our area aren't using.
What about naming cocktails: Is there a process behind that?
You know, that's the one thing that's not my strength, naming cocktails. It's another thing [where] I always ask people for ideas. Sometimes a name will just come to me; other times, I'll keep thinking about it for days. The other day I just put together a drink with applejack and a cherry vanilla kombucha we made, and was thinking, "I'm just going to call this One a Day." One of these [cocktails] would be good a day, it's got apples, it plays off the "apple a day keeps the doctor away."
Time for some bartender wisdom: How do you cut someone off?
It's always a different circumstance with every person, you kind of play it by ear. For example, right now, we're doing a lot of holiday parties. And a lot of people are coming in on buses and stuff, and you have to understand the situation. You definitely need to know how to see people, how they act when they first come in. They could've already had three drinks before they come into your bar, so you always have to keep that in perspective. … You have to let them know it's not a joke, because it's not. I've definitely said to people, "This is going to be your last one," or I've actually taken drinks away from people, which is hard to do. But people, hopefully, are with friends who understand and are like, "Let it be."
Have you ever thrown anyone out of the bar before?
No, it's not really that kind of place. We've asked people to leave, but I've never had to force people out, which is a good thing. Luckily we don't have to deal with too much of that, but we've had people say inappropriate things to other customers.
What about any good fake ID stories?
No, actually. I don't. Every year we participate in the Princeton University student restaurant week and do a three-course menu for $25 or $30. That's the one time where we're like, "Okay guys, we have to check IDs." Otherwise, it's one of those towns where it's weird, we do have a lot of students, but we don't get a lot of them in here. There's so many different schools here — like there's a choir school, there's the university, there's the grad school, there's a seminary — I do definitely check a lot of IDs. I see all kinds of IDs; luckily, none of them have been fake.
Elements' dining room. [Photo: Elements]
So what are your plans for the bar moving forward? Where do you see the bar program in the next six months, say?
There are rumors through our owner that we'll be maybe moving the bar and the restaurant in the future. It's kind of up in the air right now, but we're playing it by ear. … We have this other restaurant called Mistral in town, which we opened Memorial Day weekend, a BYO small plates, tapas idea. And it's been very popular. We actually own the whole building [Mistral is in], so if anything, we would be moving over there.
Interesting. Is there a plan to spinoff the bar totally, or would it still be part of Elements?
It would be attached to our restaurant, yes.
But Mistral is currently BYOB, so are there plans to introduce a cocktail program there?
Yes. I mean, if we were to move, we would be using that same space, and we'd be able to use liquor licenses in both spaces. Right now, that's the idea, but it's kind of up in the air as to when it'll happen. It's one of those keep-you-posted things.
Please do. So finally, what's your must-have bartender tool?
I think creativity. Definitely. Creativity and being able to have your own experimental ways. Like I said earlier, people tell me one of the things I'm great at is saying, "I'm in the mood for a dark rum cocktail" and I'll ask [a few questions], and go from there. So I think creativity is the key to being a good person behind the bar, or in the kitchen, [or] for anything for that matter.