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Free Range


New Hampden restaurant pulls off some neat tricks and flubs a few too

Photo: Sam Holden, License: N/A

Sam Holden


1011 W. 36th St., (410) 366-1163,

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The Erlenmeyer flask as door handle is the first sign that Alchemy, Hampden’s newest fine dining spot, takes its magical name seriously. Walk through that door and other clues soon follow: a cocktail list titled “Potions,” an ambitious menu that trots around the culinary globe, and a space transformed since its days as Grill Art.

But if naming your business Alchemy sets up expectations of culinary gold, it should also be quietly noted that the alchemists of history never quite succeeded in their ultimate quest. Eight weeks after opening, this restaurant too, though not without promise, is still working to find the right formula.

There’s no doubt that owners Michael and Debi Matassa have invested considerable effort into Alchemy in renovations alone. The downstairs dining room sparkles with a clean balance of white and silver, mod and tradition. A creamy, tufted leather cushion spans the length of one wall, which must make diners in the animal-print upholstered, straight-back chairs opposite feel like they’ve drawn the short straw. Across a small swath of floor, deep, high-backed booths in muted gray mimic the burnish of the silvery tin ceiling. Cutlery is substantial and bright as to dazzle, and white dinnerware includes those funky bowls that open on an angle, threatening to spill their contents while somehow keeping all intact. All this creates a mood that makes dining here feel like an occasion and not simply a meal.

But a bevy of small disjunctures add up and interfere with Alchemy’s successes. Why seat an incomplete party, for instance, but announce that menus will be withheld until the other guests arrive? Why boast on your web site about having “artisan beers” as well as an “amazing wine program” and then fail to provide a beer list, particularly when a server shows little aptitude for remembering or describing said beers, some of them running to $9 a bottle? And while offering the availability of gift cards when presenting the evening’s tab might make good business sense, it feels a little tacky.

The evening’s most puzzling misstep, however, is edible. It happens when a bowl of mojito mussels ($11) arrives, bowl warm, mussels chilled, with several shells shattered into splinters. A dig through the contents reveals shellfish crusted with ice, the mistaken result of the properly preserved mussels being improperly prepared for the dish, Debi Matassa explains with mortification. This kind of stuff happens, for sure, but it only adds to an uneven experience.

The mussels, properly prepared, are a good example of how Alchemy’s kitchen concocts its dishes, which show distinct global fusion influences. Here, mussels arrive in a bath of Kaffir lime, blood orange, rum, seafood broth, mint, basil, cilantro, and roasted garlic chipotle butter, a blend of too many individual good things, which results in an overwhelming note of none of them. Other appetizers, like a truly lovely chicken liver pâté ($9), silky and classic, better show the kitchen’s skills, though the choice to serve the pâté with flatbread is unexpected. Calypso hummus ($8), made with butterscotch beans rather than chickpeas (though you probably wouldn’t notice if you weren’t alerted to the fact), is served with a more traditional pita and is generous enough to share. Alchemy also revisits the now so-popular-as-to-be-cliché beet salad ($7) with chevre, but this version, baby beets scattered across a rectangular dish, dotted with soft nubs of cheese, and drizzled with a spritely orange vinaigrette, reminds you why some dishes become and stay popular.

Entrées at Alchemy reflect the same global reach. A dish of crab cakes nods to local tradition, while roasted red snapper spends time in a soy marinade before it is garnished with pancetta, basil, and Roma tomatoes. Angel fire chicken and chile-rubbed pork tenderloin ($18) are the Southwestern guests at the table, and the latter is one of the more successful entrées. Two substantial chunks of tenderloin, cut to resemble filet mignon, crusted with aromatic spice, and cooked to order are served alongside two tamales stuffed with sweet potato. The slight sweetness of the spice and the sweet potato might not be for everyone, but the two elements complement each other and make the dish a pleasure. The same holds true for the mahogany catfish ($19), fairly smothered in a creamy sauce studded with lump crab and corn. Although our server told us the fish was smoked, on this evening the smoking is so subtle as to go unnoticed.

And in a curious turn, subtleness is the culprit in both the chicken and dumplings ($17), essentially a bowl of chicken soup crowded with celery that could use salt (absent from the table along with pepper) to temper its strong thyme flavor, and the sockeye salmon strudel ($19), a forgettable ladies’ luncheon style turnover of spinach, boursin cheese, and salmon wrapped in phyllo.

Alchemy’s desserts are made in house and include a fine, spongy-light bread pudding ($7) served with a thick Jim Beam caramel sauce, and a brownie ($7), its sauce liberally spiked with Bailey’s Irish Cream.

Alchemy’s web site advises that “great food just doesn’t happen. . . it is created.” But I can’t help thinking that less emphasis on “creating” and a clearer menu focus, say on just Southwestern or Asian or comfort food, might make dining at Alchemy a stronger and more pleasurable experience. Once this is achieved, the results could be magical.

Alchemy is open for lunch and dinner Tuesday-Saturday; brunch and dinner on Sundays.

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