The bar critics —is that a tautology or an oxymoron? —are actually mourning the replacement of Triple D’s by the Alchemist Lounge. I guess they viewed an aging neighborhood bar full of hard-drinking men (with a developing lesbian karaoke scene in recent years) the way I view a Worcester diner with all the original trim. But the restaurant critic’s angle is food, and the Alchemist has both bar food and serious food, and does both remarkably well. The menu isn’t vast, and side dishes repeat themselves, but there are quite a few quality touches.
GOOD, SERIOUS FOOD: with live music and Karaoke on the side.
In fact, the new owners, Lyndon Fuller and Relena Erskine, a couple who live a few streets away, have turned an old JP bar into a new JP bar, with 15 draft taps and some novel cocktails, and even a late-summer custom pale ale on order from JP’s own Samuel Adams Brewery. Physically, they just stripped the room back to its bare-brick outside walls, a polished wood floor, and an open ceiling (painted black), with dramatic red walls in the bar and ochre in the dining room. If the name “Alchemist” has a slight Gothic resonance, that’s right, too. But the background music is perfectly retro: Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass one night, the Jackson Five and other light soul another.
The bread is fresh focaccia, a little too sweet one night, but with a fine tang of rosemary on another visit. There’s fruity olive oil with some Kalamata olives to make a dip. My favorite appetizer was good-old fried calamari ($8), here rendered especially well with freshness and speed to the table, and also an underlying Greek salad, including very good tomatoes, fresh basil, feta, Kalamata olives, and cress. Pork ribs ($7) are six meaty spareribs, but poached. This reduces fat, but also flavor. To compensate, they’re covered in a honey sesame-seed soy dressing of some quality, and served with jicama slaw ($3 as a side dish) made with carrots and a creamier dressing than most slaw, so it’s like crunchy potato salad.
Rosemary lamb ($10) is a few slices of very good medium-rare leg of lamb served with a larger version of the calamari’s Greek salad. Soup of the day ($5) one day was a clear-broth chicken soup with chicken and spinach. I approve of the chef’s boldness in serving a clear-broth soup in a small restaurant. The challenge here is the stock, and ours was honest but thin, and dominated by black pepper. It is possible to fix this. The bones from a boneless chicken dish, plus the stock used to poach the pork ribs, as the Chinese restaurants use, would give you a superior stock.
There’s little to fix on the entrées we had from both the sandwich list and the big dinners. (There is also a cheaper flatbread-with-various list that I’m leaving for the bar reviewers.) Even seafood paella ($19), a notoriously hard dish to time in restaurant kitchens, made only the right mistake: coming to the table a little soupy, with the rice slightly underdone, but saving the mussels and the superb shrimp from the usual rubbery paella syndrome. The other flavors were real saffron in the stock, white-meat chicken off the bone, and bits of spicy chorizo sausage. Really fresh and underdone green peas were a nice surprise.
The fresh peas were even better on a dinner of grilled salmon ($16), itself quite underdone. The garnish was real Thai jasmine rice (could have been cooked longer), and also large snap-pea stems served as a dressed salad. (Regular readers have been eating these sautéed in Cantonese restaurants for some years now.) There was also a killer aioli. This garlic mayonnaise can be harsh, but the Alchemist chef has transmuted it into silken smoothness and mild, sweet flavor. The roasted half chicken ($15) is done as comfort food, with lots of great, goopy gravy. There’s only a bit of porcini stuffing to one side, but a nice portobello mushroom makes up for it; plus, it comes with garlicky mashed potatoes all over, with creamy (and perhaps a little cheesy) spinach for something green. A side dish of grilled asparagus ($3) brought only seven undergrilled pieces of sub-pencil caliber.
On the sandwich menu, the open steak sandwich ($12) is slices of well-flavored, somewhat chewy steak to order, perhaps chuck steak, plus a grilled hot pepper and superb French fries. You can add toppings like caramelized onions for another 75 cents. The sirloin burger ($12) is outstanding, and I would suggest it over the steak.