Alchemy is a restaurant that almost wasn't. In 2006, as the restaurant's partners were renovating the South Park corner building that would be its new home, a fire swept through, virtually gutting the space and setting them back nearly to square one. More than two years later, in February 2009, Alchemy finally opened. From all I've seen and tasted, it seems to have been worth the wait.
The menu uses the puzzling phrase “cultural fare” to describe the food, which I think means Alchemy is reworking traditional dishes from around the globe with contemporary cooking techniques and seasonal—including many local—ingredients. The food is undeniably attractive; the kitchen has an eye for color and composition. And, for the most part, it tastes good, too. I've eaten my way through most of the menu, which is easy to do when all the plates are manageable, both in portion and cost.
Alchemy's bar, which is quiet on weeknights but a scene come Fridays, offers some specialty cocktails based on fresh fruit, including the palate-priming Rosemary Negroni, which balances astringent gin and bitter Campari with blood-orange juice. Wines are from lesser-known producers, which results in very comfortable bottle prices, and the beer list is small but somewhat local, though it's wise not to attempt to rival the selection at Hamilton's up the block. Of the small, tapas-like snacks, the special of the day is frequently good, and the pork-stuffed piquillo peppers are popular, but my favorite is the slender asparagus topped with romesco sauce, a spread made with roasted peppers and nuts. From the small plates, the pair of oysters from Carlsbad Aquafarm tastes fresh and clean, but as much as I love these bivalves, I'd throw them over for a bigger portion of the gazpacho verde that fills an accompanying shot glass. The cool and tangy soup, a purée of roasted tomatillos and Pasilla peppers, garnished with lime crema, is truly delicious and refreshing. Skip the ceviche and fish tacos for the grain salad, akin to Middle Eastern tabouli, here a mix of cous cous, red quinoa and lentils tossed with herbs, or try the duo of salmon—slices of house-cured loin and silky salmon belly tartare with a crunchy papadum cracker.
Two wide circles of ravioli, stuffed with a filling of goat cheese ricotta and braised greens, have a delicate flavor that's overwhelmed by the syrupy beet reduction that drowns the pasta. A drizzle or two would do. A friend's Jidori chicken was crisp-skinned and exceptionally juicy, though the shitake dumplings alongside need some work. I liked the simplicity of the halibut filet cooked sous vide, a more gentle version of the boil-in-a-bag technique, served with well-roasted brussel sprouts and toasted walnuts. This cooking style keeps the fish really moist, though I missed the layer of crisp fish skin. I got that with the pan-roasted local seabass. The flesh of the fish was a little dry, but the dish was saved by its bed of sautéed fennel, tomato and capers.
From service to decor, Alchemy's whole vibe is modern and polished but not uncomfortably so, though I do take issue with the choice of flatware, in particular the knife selection. The style is beautiful, but its shape is so strangely curved that it's impossible to place your knife on your plate without having it go slip-sliding into your food or across the table. And every time we order the cranberry bread pudding for dessert, I declare that I'm only having a bite and then make a liar of myself, since I can't stop going back for more of the tender cake, topped with a scoop of excellent buttermilk gelato from Gelato Vero and garnished with toasted pumpkin seeds. It'd definitely take some sorcery to keep my spoon away. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.