Alchemy charms you as soon as you walk in the door. The staff greets you cheerfully, and the décor is big-city chic with a neighborhood comfiness about it—whether you're seated in the casual downstairs area or in the intimate dining room upstairs.
The menu has the same pleasant dual personality: There are sophisticated entrees like a mahogany catfish with sweet-corn-and-crab relish and a porterhouse steak with Maytag blue demi-glace and rosemary Cabernet compound butter, or less fussy fare like a cheeseburger made with ground sirloin and a classic Monte Cristo sandwich.
The Hampden restaurant calls itself a modern American eatery. The description fits. The hands-on chef/owners—husband and wife Michael Matassa and Debi Bell-Matassa—are offering their own twists to traditional dishes. Michael is the executive chef. Debi is the pastry chef and sommelier.
The couple operated the Fusion Grille in Fallston for several years, closing the restaurant in 2005 when Bell-Matassa had a recurrence of breast cancer. Alchemy—which opened in November 2010 in the old Grill Art Cafe space—is a second chance for the chefs in many ways. The name Alchemy—with its medieval sense of magical transformation—seems suited to the task.
On any given night, you'll find one or the other of the chefs wandering around the dining rooms, chatting up guests and inquiring about their meals. For the most part, you'll probably give them a good report. With the exception of a few misses, which I'll get to in a minute, my meals on two occasions were good experiences.
On my first visit, I dropped by with a friend without a reservation and was seated on the first floor, settling into one of the tufted ivory banquettes, reminiscent of a plush '50s car interior. There are also chairs, padded with stylish leopard seat covers, at the tables, too.
The smoked fish plate is a must order. The share-worthy display features house-smoked trout, smoked salmon, slices of black-tea-smoked egg, chopped onions, a grainy mustard cream, and caper berries, all to be scooped onto soft flatbread triangles. Another appetizer—a small tureen of crab bisque—was also quite delicious with lots of jumbo lump crab in a light cream broth with a hint of sherry.
We followed the starters with a tender ancho-chili-rubbed pork tenderloin with two wonderful sweet-potato-and-corn stuffed tamales. (What a great idea!) We also enjoyed a roasted red snapper in a sesame crust with roasted Roma tomatoes.
The servers are pleasant, energetic, and don't mind making suggestions, especially when it comes to desserts. Following our waitress's recommendations—and not being disappointed by them—we finished our meal with a petite custard bread pudding with Jim Beam bourbon caramel sauce and a generous wedge of two-layer carrot cake slathered with Limoncello cream-cheese frosting.
On another evening, we were escorted to the sleek upstairs dining room, where a small, stainless-steel bar with a handful of white-leather stools shares the cozy space with a smattering of white-cloth-covered tables. The room has a certain formality without being stuffy—perfect for a tête-à-tête or catching up with friends.
Again, I was impressed with the appetizers. The roasted heirloom beet salad was a deconstructed dish: baby red and gold beets, dotted with chèvre and drizzled with a balsamic reduction and orange vinaigrette, were piled in the middle of the plate and encircled by a thin ring of barely-there baby greens.
The scallops Provençal on olive toasty could easily be a dainty main course. Five fat scallops sat in a sweet-vermouth cream sauce tinged with tomato, capers, and shallots, and accompanied by crostini smothered with tapenade. The smooth-textured chicken-liver pâté also packed a punch with Armagnac. Spread a dab on a piece of flatbread, add a spoonful of caramelized onions, and the result is heaven.
Our main dishes arrived after a short wait. The sockeye salmon strudel was lovely. The crisp phyllo was filled with pink fish, boursin cheese, and wilted baby spinach, and came with a side of roasted vegetables. Our other two meals were less remarkable.
The pecan-crusted lamb chops—a huge portion—were cooked past the requested medium, erasing any tenderness. I'm hoping this was a one-time kitchen glitch. The chicken and dumplings, meanwhile, were a lost cause.
I was envisioning grandma's version with a nurturing chicken stew and soft, doughy dumplings. This dish bore no resemblance. The chicken chunks were trapped in a too-dense, gloppy gravy concoction, and the herb dumplings tasted like leftover lumps of Thanksgiving stuffing that had too much sage.
But my friends and I were back on track with desserts. The flourless chocolate cake was warm and deeply chocolatety. And the basket of fruit was a showstopper. The tuile "basket," which could be broken off into cookie pieces, looked like an upside-down cloche hat filled with Tahitian vanilla gelato (made by Ciao Bella in Little Italy, our server said) and topped with an assortment of plump berries doused in Grand Marnier. The bright fresh flavors washed away any disappointments with the entrees.
When chef Matassa stopped by our table later, we assured him everything was fine. And we really meant it. The few glitches really didn't take away from a mostly terrific meal—on two different occasions.