Lawrenceville gastropub Alchemy N' Ale overcomes early problems, but still has obstacles to clear
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The May announcement of a new gastropub in Lawrenceville was met with excitement in some quarters and trepidation in others. Many saw Alchemy N' Ale as a welcome addition to a lonely stretch of Butler Street. But neighborhood association Lawrenceville United and Pittsburgh Councilman Patrick Dowd had concerns about one of the participants, who had a troubled track record operating clubs on the South Side, and worried the restaurant would have a negative impact.
Despite their objections, the restaurant opened as planned, and it appears to have exerted a mostly positive effect. A cheerful vertical sign is easy to spot from the street. Inside, lantern-style fixtures cast a cozy glow over terra cotta and exposed brick walls and polished wooden farmhouse tables. The restaurant is divided into a narrow room with a long bar and a slightly more expansive dining room, faux ivy climbing up the dining room's interior wall, adding a slightly whimsical touch.
2 stars = Very good
Service: half star
2 stars = Very good
1 1/2 stars = Good+
5147 Butler St.
- Hours: Wednesday-Saturday, 5 p.m.-midnight, bar open until 2 a.m.; Sunday brunch, 11 a.m.-3 p.m, dinner, 5-10 p.m.
- Basics: This casual, but attractive, gastropub offers a mix of seasonal dishes, British-inspired fare and up-market bar food, along with a solid beer list and a handful of specialty cocktails.
- Recommended dishes: Lobster deviled eggs, pickled beet salad, pretzel rolls, fish and chips, frito pie, scallops with polenta, Alchemy.
- Prices: Appetizers, $5-$14; entrees, $12-$22; desserts, $5-$7
- Drink: Featured cocktails include well made Moscow Mules and Mojitos; bar emphasizes its lengthy list of bottled beers and beers on draft include a number of seasonal offerings.
- Summary: Wheelchair accessible; credit cards accepted; no reservations; no BYOB.
- Noise level: Medium loud.
Chef Patrick MacFarlane has worked at the Tribeca Grill in New York City, as well as Downtown's Steelhead Brasserie and Wine Bar and the now-closed Tusca Mediterranean Tapas on the South Side. His menu sticks mostly to up-market bar food, including an interesting assortment of British-inspired fare, such as fish and chips.
Plump, sweet PEI mussels were bathed in an aromatic, lightly sweet broth of hard cider, speck, scallions and garlic ($11). These were served in a wide, shallow bowl, so it was easy to sop up the delicious broth with crisp pieces of toast.
The soft, and gooey mac 'n cheese may be the best deal ($5), a large bowl of garganelli pasta coated in a light, traditional cheese sauce ($5).
Burgers are everywhere these days, and Alchemy N' Ale doesn't buck the trend. The house special was built on a thick, flavorful patty, piled with Rogue Smokey Blue cheese, onion marmalade and crisp slices of molasses bacon ($14). The pale, small bun, however, quickly grew soggy and insubstantial, unable to properly corral its contents.
Frito chile pie was a surprise hit. The Fritos had softened into a thick corn mush, topped with tender chunks of short rib and brisket, layers of melted cheese and a fried egg ($15).
The shepherd's pie was a little bland in comparison, short ribs and flank steak moistened by a truffle gravy that didn't taste much like truffles, steaming hot beneath a smooth mashed potato lid ($15).
Fish and chips was an impressive, appealing plate ($13). The giant slab of fish in a light crisp batter would have benefited from more assertive salting, but flavorful accompaniments helped. The massive fish was matched by a massive pile of thick steak fries, madras curry mayonnaise for dipping and a bowl of wonderfully minty and sweet mushy peas.
There are lighter dishes to be had, including a house salad of thinly sliced mesclun and romaine, strongly flavored with chopped olives, feta and tomatoes and extra crunchy from cucumbers and strips of fried tortilla ($7). Salt-roasted beets were plated quite differently on two different visits, but both times I was impressed by the robust flavor of the beets, particularly a sweet yellow variety ($6).
Other dishes needed substantial work. Fried chicken consisted of a boneless breast -- probably the least logical cut for fried chicken ($14). The meat itself was moist, but the crust was soggy and fell away from patches. Instead of the chard listed on the menu, there was a soggy arugula salad, wilted from the heat of the plate. The plate was somewhat salvaged by creamy mashed potatoes and a small pot of delectable honey gastrique -- floral and sweet, with a tart edge.
Mustard salmon was a bit of a disaster. The salmon was served skin side down, so it became soggy and fishy. I'm all for choosing undyed farmed salmon over the conventionally farmed fish (conventionally farmed salmon is dyed pink; wild salmon is pink because of what it eats), but why would anyone coat a beige fish with pale yellow mustard, then serve it on a beige fennel-cauliflower gratin? Not only was it visually unappealing, the combination of the mustard and cheese-heavy gratin also overwhelmed the flavor of the salmon ($18).
Skip the steak frites as well-- the thick, floury fries just don't work with this dish, and the uneven chunks of steak felt slightly stringy, as if they'd been sliced with, instead of against, the grain.
Desserts included a slice of key lime pie that was more sweet than tart, chocolate sorbet served in a ceramic cocoa bean and a refreshing three berry trifle, the best of the bunch.
A gastropub is part bar, part restaurant, and some thought has been put into the drink options at Alchemy N' Ale. The beer list of more than two dozen bottles offers some breadth, even if it sticks mainly to the usual suspects. The draft list offers lots of seasonal options, including, at the moment, several tasty pumpkin brews.
There are a handful of signature cocktails, written on a chalkboard in the bar, including the Moscow Mule, ginger beer and vodka garnished with lime and mint, a Dark N' Stormy, that swaps rum for the vodka, and a mojito. The first two are served in beautiful copper mugs that keep the drinks exceptionally cold. They're smart drinks, delicious and easy to put together no matter how busy it gets.
There were relatively few snacky options for those more focused on drinking, another sign that Alchemy N' Ale emphasizes its identity as a restaurant over its identity as a bar. Lobster deviled eggs were a treat, if a pricey one, the yolks flavored with mustard creme fraiche, horseradish and celery salt, and each one topped with a small chunk of butter-poached lobster ($14).
Pretzel rolls didn't sound like much, but fresh from the oven and served with a spicy mustard dipping sauce, they were remarkably delicious ($6). It might be too time-consuming for the kitchen, but these would make a wonderful signature bread basket. They would buy the restaurant some goodwill, which frankly, it could use.
Alchemy N' Ale has a lot going for it, but at the moment it's suffering from a lack of hospitality. Servers are friendly and competent, but they're also run off their feet, tasked with too many jobs and too many tables. On a recent Saturday night, it was challenging even to get our names on the wait list, which it turned out was a scrap of notebook paper tucked away at the far end of the bar -- the restaurant doesn't have a host or hostess.
It's bad enough when restaurants have out-of-date menus on their websites. At one point, a menu displayed outside Alchemy N' Ale was more than twice as long as the one we received when we sat down. Although several specials helped pad the offerings, if we'd had our heart set on a lobster roll or shrimp boil, we'd have been sorely disappointed. A few weeks later, the menus were longer, but they were printed on paper sheets so worn and wrinkled that they looked like they'd been trampled.
After our server's enthusiastic descriptions, several of us opted to order one of the specialty cocktails. We then learned that it if we ordered one in a copper mug, she would have to hold on to our IDs to ensure we didn't walk out with it -- "Too many have been stolen," our server explained. That's a tricky problem, but treating all of your customers like potential thieves is not a solution.
Some of these problems have easy answers: Hire more servers, copy more menus. Creating a feeling of welcome is more difficult. But the team behind Alchemy N' Ale has already overcome many obstacles to open the restaurant's doors, and it seems up for another challenge.
First Published October 13, 2011 12:00 am