The recipe for the newest concept in dining, the gastropub, is simple: Take a traditional bar -- the neighborhood-pub model where gossip and opinions on current events are exchanged over pints -- replace the Guinness posters with some updated décor, and instead of greasy, fried ballast, serve a salutary menu of gourmet comfort food. In other words, give the food at least as much consideration as the drink, so that pairings of meals and beer might offer as much satisfaction as do pairings of food and wine at finer establishments.
At Alchemy N' Ale in Lawrenceville, this blend of rusticity and refinement is disarmingly effective. The décor, too, blends contemporary simplicity (exposed ductwork and brick walls) with rough-hewn touches, such as farmhouse tables. The wall separating the long, narrow bar on one side of the interior from the long, narrow dining room on the other is carpeted in faux ivy, seeming to signify an urban regard for nature which is echoed in the menu's declaration of its commitment to local, organic and sustainable food sources.
If this is the alchemy in Alchemy N' Ale, the second part of the restaurant's name is fully self-explanatory. Indeed, the bar's emphasis on beer translates to a list a full page long, while the wine selection consists of only the house red and white (although liquor gets a bit more respect).
Like the beer menu, the food menu is well considered, with plenty of variety in a restrained number of appetizers and entrées. Starters tend more toward traditional pub grub: fish tacos, gravy fries, mac-and-cheese. The entrées reminded us of the tavern's British origins, with offerings such as shepherd's pie and fish and chips. Things pushed upscale in two directions: Dishes such as skillet scallops and filet mignon seemed a bit tony for the typical public house, while even humble items like fried chicken were enhanced with Swiss chard and honey gastrique. Indeed, the kitchen seemed unable to resist leaving anything simple alone. Even the pretzel rolls were finished with a brushing of butter and a sprinkle of Maldon sea salt before being served with Chimay mustard.
This sort of thing can backfire on a kitchen whose ambitions exceed its reach, but we found that Chef Patrick MacFarlane's touch and taste were mostly right on. Prince Edward Island mussels with hard cider and speck (German ham) was a delicious departure from the more common use of beer and wine as steaming liquids: The saltiness of the speck brought the sweet cider into line with the briny shellfish. Zingy scallions and garlic accented the whole bowl, and we enjoyed sopping the broth up with the excellent crusty bread almost as much as eating it with the tender mussels.
Beet panzanella (Italian bread salad) with greens was dressed with a grapefruit vinaigrette that added a subtly tart counterpoint -- rather than a sour contrast -- to the sweetness of the beets. A more generous hand with the greens in this salad would have brought the entire dish into perfect balance, but as it was, the components for a fully satisfying complement of flavors and textures were all in place.
Shepherd's pie can be, and often is, nothing more than mashed potatoes over ground beef and gravy. It's labeled "comfort food," because that's the nicest thing you can say about such mush. But Alchemy N' Ale applied culinary skill without straying from the fundamental concept: The kitchen swapped juicy, flavorful short ribs and flank steak for ground beef, added aromatic truffles to the gravy, and included sweet-onion marmalade for a marvelously effective element which was simultaneously earthy and sweet. It was, hands down, the best shepherd's pie Jason has ever tried.
Frito pie was another instance of tweaking a humble regional one-pot meal -- in this case, one from the American Southwest -- to improve its particulars without altering its fundamental character. Southern-style chili, made with more shredded short ribs and flank steak instead of ground beef, was poured into a crock over Frito corn chips and garnished with salty queso blanco, tangy sharp cheddar, onions and a fried egg. The chips soaked up the broth to give the dish body, the shredded beef gave it sophistication in both flavor and texture, and the combination of cheeses plus the egg rounded out the savory flavor profile.
Oddly, for all his soaring success with tarted-up dishes, MacFarlane tripped over some lower hurdles. A dining companion complained that her filet was gristly and unevenly cooked, while another's mustard-crusted salmon was overdone, the exterior too dark and the interior a touch dry.
Nonetheless, Alchemy N' Ale's best dishes are terrific, and there are enough of them here to give the gastropub -- this one at least -- a good name. Good beer and good conversation deserve to be accompanied by such exciting flavors as these.
Alchemy N' Ale
5147 Butler St., Lawrenceville. 412-252-2156
Kitchen hours: Tue.-Thu. 5-11 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 5 p.m.-midnight
Prices: Starters $7-11; entrees $14-22
Liquor: Full bar