Alchemy, a stylish new bistro in Hampden, had me at its appetizers.
The fish plate ($11) had just the right amount of applewood smoke, which gave the fillet of trout and the salmon a hint of wood flavor without being overpowering. Smoked fish is not an easy dish to pull off — often it ends up either too fishy or smoky — and this "app" had the right balance.
The chicken liver pate ($9) was also a winner. I am not a liver lover, but this mix of chicken livers, butter flavored with fresh herbs, caramelized onions, Armagnac and peppercorn was a head-turner and a palate-pleaser. It was more pate than liver, and that in my book is a plus.
Alchemy opened at the end of November in a renovated space on 36th Street, known as The Avenue. There are two levels. The first floor, with polished wood tables and chairs with leopard-print seat covers, has the look of an American bistro. A dramatic touch is the upholstered white banquette that covers one wall. It looks classy and also absorbs sound. As my wife and I sat at a banquette, nibbling on smoked fish and chicken pate and listening to the soft-piped in music of a Keith Jarrett-like piano number, I wondered if I was really in Hampden.
The upstairs, a smaller room (a transformed bedroom, I was told), has the look of a provincial French restaurant. White tablecloths, low ceilings and, at the end of the room, a small, gorgeous bar. Owners Debi Bell-Matassa and Michael Matassa, who formerly presided over the Fusion Grill in Harford County, were on the premises, working in the kitchen and circulating to greet customers,
The food here is American fare jazzed up with exceptional ingredients . A good example was the catfish fillet ($19) . Catfish is perhaps the quintessential American fish. Mark Twain and TV weatherman Willard Scott have sung its praises. In my day, I have caught, skinned, and eaten a boatload of catfish, and I know it often can be muddy and dull. But the catfish at Alchemy was delicate, the white meat almost flaky, yet still possessing the distinctive tang of true channel cat. Mixed in with it and lifting up its flavor was a relish made of sweet corn and crab. Catfish hooking up with crab: Who figured?
Another entree, the pecan-crusted lamb chops ($25), was superb. The lamb was tender, pink and perfectly cooked. Lamb can handle strong company, and here the notes of honey, molasses, a Dijon mustard and a port sauce contributed to the dish's stellar profile.
The surprise of the night was a side dish of hominy cakes ($6). Made with hominy and chorizo, these cakes delivered terrific corn flavors. Mama, what a dish! Too bad it is served only as a special.
Desserts looked stunning. A multicolor creme brulee ($8) had the proper caramel crust and vivid flavors. A flourless chocolate cake ($8) had flavors and textures so dense that it was a dish only for the true chocoholic. Others would find it heavy going.
Service was not up to the level of the food. Servers tended to talk to each other rather than eye the table and anticipate the needs of the diners. They were not entirely familiar with the menu, but the restaurant is new, so this should improve with time. Pacing — getting courses to the table in smooth rhythm — also needs work.
Where: 1011 W. 36th St.
Hours: Open for lunch and dinner daily
[Outstanding: ✭✭✭✭; Good: ✭✭✭; Fair or Uneven: ✭✭; Poor: ✭]