Alchemy, “a modern American eatery”, opened about 2 years ago in a former storefront on Hampden’s “The Avenue”. We discovered a four foot high image of “Jessica Rabbit” in the front window (John never did figure out the connection between Jessica and alchemy…). Inside, Alchemy has a contemporary feel with a dozen walnut topped tables tightly configured. There’s a few free standing tables and a few high backed booths along one wall while the facing wall has tables in front of a six foot high white banquette. A small dining room with sponged plum colored walls and white table cloths on the second floor has a traditional arrangement but is only open on weekends or when the first floor dining room is full. Colorful modern art and photographs punctuate the walls.
Alchemy’s standard dinner menu includes eight “Beginnings” ($8-$13), a couple of soups ($7), five side salads ($7-$11), nine entrees ($17-$34 with most in the mid-$20’s), six side vegetable dishes ($4-$6) as well as a printed page of additional daily specials. Marty, who likes his meat well done, smiled at the menu’s warning that the kitchen honors customers’ requests for dishes to cooked well-done “but it breaks our heart and we cannot be responsible for the outcome”. Some small yet dense, warm popovers wowed us while we struggled to decide what to order. After considerable analysis, Marty and John finally decided to share a “Mojito Mussels” appetizer and our friend Rita opted to start with “Calypso Hummus”. For entrees, Marty experimented with Pepper Fennel-Crusted Hebi ($29 – Hebi is a Hawaiian mild white fish), John ordered a “Peach Cider Glazed Pork Chop” ($27) while Rita decided on a vegetarian Stuffed Acorn Squash ($17)
The mussels were large and plump (with more than enough for both of us to share) but it was the broth that they were cooked in that really got our attention. With mingled flavors of lime, orange, cilantro, garlic and more, it fantastic and addicting (we started scooping it up with mussel shells at first, then with some French bread that our server brought when she noticed our enthusiasm!). Rita’s hummus had a distinctive tang of unusual herbs and spices which she couldn’t quite place but enjoyed; she smile as she’d realized that she had never described a bean dish as “refreshing” before. Both starters rated a “Thumbs Ups!” from all three of us.
John’s large, double-thick pork chop dominated his plate reclining on a bed of (yummy!) white bean cassolet and an interesting corn puree. While the cider glaze wasn’t really evident, the chop was good and not overdone.
Marty’s fish entrée served with marinated artichokes and pickled radishes and a dab of fennel puree was artfully presented. The fish was mild tasting and the fennel puree wasn’t to Marty’s liking so he asked Debbi Mantassa, one of the owners and who keeps a close eye on the dining room, for ketchup. Poor Debbi was obviously taken aback! While she explained that Alchemy avoided serving processed foods like ketchup and that if necessary she would run across the street to grab some ketchup, she instead suggested a couple of sauces from the kitchen. A dab of a creamy crab sauce turned out to add just the touch that Marty wanted! (Bravo Debbi!)
The clear star of the entrees though was the Acorn Squash which arrived filled to overflowing with roasted autumn vegetables, tomatoes, capers and lightly braised arugula. Mixed in with the veggies, long wide strands of homemade pappardelle pasta (which Rita said was “superb!”) added a wonderful contrast. Rita thought that her entrée was the best vegetarian dish she’s experienced in a restaurant. This was an extraordinary vegetarian dish where the talent of the alchemists in the kitchen was obvious in their conjured mix of colors, flavors and textures.
After such a feast, we decided to share one dessert and our server suggested the Grand Marnier Tuile. The tuile was a softball sized crispy, thin cookie shell with scoops of vanilla ice cream topped by Grand Marnier soaked raspberries and strawberry slices sitting (with tall chocolate “straws” floating in the air) in a 10” soup bowl with a ½” of thick cream dabbled with traces of more Grand Marnier. (We discovered this cost $13 but there were no complaints! But… We did ponder what the servers would have done if just one person had ordered this mammoth dessert!). Not necessarily evident from this list of ingredients, the tuile was surprisingly light and not overly sweet (which probably contributed to the three of us making it completely disappear!) John also loved the unique option to choose to have steamed milk with his coffee!
Alchemy’s food and service considerably impressed us and both clearly earned a “Thumbs Up!” from all three of us. We had to observe though that the kitchen’s alchemy magic at dinner doesn’t come cheap and the prices may have some folks considering this a place for “special occasions” rather than every day dining.
FACTS: Alchemy (Hampden); 1011 W. 36th St; 410-336-1163; www.alchemyon36.com; Closed Mondays; Open for Lunch and Dinner; Full bar; Impressive Vegetarian options in addition to non-veg; Sunday Brunch; on-street parking