[Country Comfort Food &] 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall…
By Michael A Coyne ll
The word alchemy refers to a mystical ancient tradition. It conjures images of bearded mages in medieval laboratories, set in a tireless pursuit of the philosopher’s stone, the elixir of life, and a method to turn lead into precious gold. This philosophy has been around for millennia, with both soothsayers and scientists like Sir Isaac Newton as its practitioners. Today, the practice of alchemy still lives on, albeit with a different goal in mind. The noble pursuit of this protoscience has less to do with chemical substances than sustenance. Modern day alchemist Jason Wright, both Chef and owner of Alchemy Café and Wine Bar in Murphys, California has crafted new methods of turning common ingredients into spectacular culinary creations. While his efforts in the kitchen may never lead to the elixir of life, they are quite proficient at assuaging your appetite, and in this author’s opinion, satiating the soul.
Alchemy has a unique approach to the theme of their menu. Options include a variety of fare from around the world. Many of the dishes could be best described as “comfort food”, but always with an element of the unexpected, a twist to set it apart from the ordinary. Taks the Macaroni and cheese for example. Perhaps the ultimate incarnation of comfort food, this classic dish is a crowd pleaser for people of all ages. To take it up a notch, Chef Wright uses aged white cheddar and parmesan cheeses, and the addition of sweet and savory Dungeness crab meat makes this Mac the ultimate entrée. The menu offers a breadth of different styles of cuisine without sacrificing depth. You will find a seafood dish next to Thai food, alongside American continental cuisine, and the menu still retains a cohesive quality with no plate out of place. The world influence is unmistakable. Your palate can visit Greece, Thailand, and the south of France before you even get to your entrée, and all without ever leaving the dinner table. Although your taste buds may be jet-setting to the various different flavors of the world, the fresh, locally farmed ingredients that go into the food will bring you back to Cali.
Our meal began with a little Provencal flair. A pound of Iron Skillet Mussels are finished with sherry, garlic, and fresh herbs, and served alongside a generous pile of parsley truffle fries. This is comfort food at its best! Crispy Fried Calamari came next, topped with Jalapeño peppers, parmesan cheese, and chipotle aioli. This dish has a fair amount of heat to it, and a cold beer is just the thing to put out the fire. We also enjoyed a wonderfully fresh summer salad with mixed greens, candied walnuts, and bleu cheese.
Prior to our main course, we were served an intermezzo of habanero sorbet and sparkling mead, or “honey wine.” This was a delightful surprise, with sweet and subtle spicy flavors giving way to a crisp dry floral finish. Now that our palate’s were cleansed and refreshed, we were ready to take on the main course. The spicy Pad Thai was excellent, with a medley of fresh seafood and vegetables. It was at least as good as anything you will find in an authentic Thai restaurant. Short ribs were reminiscent of Korean Barbeque, with bok choy and a sweet and savory glaze. The marinated “Almost Boneless” half chicken was our third selection. It was cooked under a brick, which lends a nice sear and preserves the moisture and flavor of the chicken throughout the cooking process. The creamy polenta and snap peas rounded out the presentation, leaving this dish near the healthy side of comfort cooking.
The décor too is a combination of different themes, brought together to provide a dining atmosphere that is at once both rustic and elegant. Elements like the ornate chandeliers or the marble-top bar enhance the quaint country feel of the restaurant. It is an ideal setting in which to enjoy the hearty cuisine, a bottle of wine, or, like the winemakers that we encountered from Irish, Chiarella, and Laraine wineries, a nice cold beer.
The selection of craft beers is another area where Alchemy excels. “It is a spectrum of the beverage world that a lot of people are not familiar with. The range of flavors is at least, if not more wide than in the wine world,” explains Chef Wright. The assortment of brews ranges from light lagers to rich stouts, from bocks to Belgians to barley wine, and the list goes on. Sour beers, fruity infusions, and opulent dessert beers add an eclectic touch, while a few of the usual suspects are available for those who prefer not to stray too far off the beaten path. Truly, I do not possess in this article enough words to express the phenomenal assortment of beers that they have assembled. Although they seek to share their passion and knowledge about beer with all their guests, rest assured you will receive no disdainful looks or comments for ordering a Coors Light. There are no beer snobs at Alchemy, only beer ambassadors.
With each course throughout our meal, we were offered thoughtful recommendations for brews to pair with the food. As a self-proclaimed wine aficionado, I must admit that I rarely consider beer as an accompaniment to my meal, unless spicy Mexican or smoky barbeque are on the menu. Having said that, I feel that I may have been letting the best in life get past me. In all fairness, the synergy I experienced at Alchemy rivaled any classic paring of food and wine. I would readily place The Lost Abbey “Red Barn Ale” alongside a Zinfandel or Port as my beverage of choice to enjoy with chocolate. The flavor and weight matched perfectly with our velvety chocolate mousse, and the savory, hedonistic pleasure derived from this duo is on par with Sauterne and Foie Gras. Another favorite of ours is the Duchess de Bourgogne, one of the last remaining examples of the coveted “Flanders Red Ale” style. To enjoy this with a steaming bowl of the sautéed mussels and a pile of the truffle fries is reason enough to visit Alchemy.
All this attention to beer does not mean that the wine selection is overlooked. The list is concise, with just over thirty bottles, a large component of which is from Calaveras Appellation wineries. Local favorites like Chatom and Milliaire showcase what the local terroir and winemaking talent have to offer. I was most impressed with the assortment of red blends which goes well beyond Meritage. Jason has compiled some interesting and eclectic Tanner’s “Mélange de Mere” and one of my favorites, “Téte a Téte” by Terre Rouge. This robust blend of Mourvédre, Grenache, and Syrah is an impressive release from the Rhone Ranger.
I must admit, I found it extremely difficult to put into words the allure and creativity of the concept Alchemy has on dining. It is almost as if the food and drink resist definition, not willing to fully divulge their secrets. It is exactly this elusive quality that makes Alchemy such a unique, exciting experience, and keeps their guests coming back for more. If, with this article, I managed to convey even a fraction of the true experience that is Alchemy, you will not be able to resist the desire to try it for yourself. A mystical journey awaits you.
Alchemy Market & Café is located at 191 Main Street, Murphys, CA 95247
For directions use our map in the Calaveras section. Alchemy is directly across the street from Tanner Vineyards #24
Please call for current hours (209)728-0700
For more information go to www.alchemymarket.blogspot.com