The first impression of Alchemy is that it's stunning. The ceilings soar, massive canvasses and large vases of green stalks hang on the walls. Tables and soft seating are spread out so the space is clean, uncluttered.
And then there's the bar. It's hands-down the most attractive one in town and it's got to be the biggest. It takes up the center of the large room, and everything about it, from the 30 or so bar stools to the depth of the bar top to the flower arrangements, is big and beautiful.
It's so dramatic that raises the question: Is Alchemy a bar or is it a restaurant?
Sure, bars serve food, and restaurants have bars. But here, the question lingers and depends, I think, on the person:
Are you there to mostly eat or mostly drink?
Let's start with a cocktail. Alchemy does it right. Drinks are reasonably priced, generously poured, and made with top-shelf ingredients. Juices are fresh, limes are squeezed when needed, herbs are muddled to order. For the liquor, they bring out the good stuff.
There's a list of a dozen or so specialty cocktails, and we sampled from this. All were very good; two of the six we tried over our visits were excellent.
Dancin' Jimmy's Secret tops the list of my favorite cocktails at present. It's an extraordinarily refreshing and intoxicating mix of Ciroc vodka, muddled red grapes, plenty of lime, a dash of simple syrup and on one visit, a hint of mint.
The muddled grapes add the barest touch of flavor, but it's essential to the drink. The juice mellows the lime juice, and the crushed grapes are pretty, too. The ice is hard and clear, slow to melt and dilute the cocktail. They're paying attention at Alchemy.
Mostly, anyway. The first time we ordered the Cooper Street cocktail, it came made with bourbon instead of Appleton rum, a dark rum from Jamaica. (It was sent back and removed from the tab, though no admission of a wrong pour ever came.)
We ordered the drink on a different visit and it was correctly made with rum. The mix with grapefruit juice, lime and simple syrup is a nice sipping cocktail.
When we ordered sweetbreads, the server wanted to be sure we knew what they were. The rock shrimp and chorizo mac and cheese had to be explained because it's spicy. At another visit, the concept of small plates was thoroughly presented. It seems the servers feel a need to offer more explanation than diners should need, but I suspect it's not without some cause.
The prices of dishes are low, starting at about $6, but the portions are quite small; an uninformed diner could certainly be taken aback if unfamiliar with the concept. We were told that two plates make a meal, but that's not exactly right. A cheese plate and a salad would make for a very light meal, but the lamb ribs and the Brussels sprouts would be plenty. Ask when ordering, and keep your menu handy. The food comes out quickly, so you can always order more.
And save room for dessert.
Here's the explanation you need for the mac and cheese. It's decadently good. The chorizo is the spicier, crumbly Mexico version, not the cured Spanish sausage. It's the predominant flavor in the the cheesy and creamy dish. Toasted bread crumbs on top give a tiny crunch, and the combination is superb. It's one of the heartier selections on the menu and makes a meal with a salad -- try it with the roasted artichoke and baby arugula salad -- or even alone.
The Brussels sprouts with bacon, pistachios and Granny Smith apples is an inspired treatment for the formerly humble vegetable. The warm dish is a balanced mix of sweet, sour and smoky; the coarsely ground nuts add depth and crunch.
If you smell the Denver lamb ribs, you'll try them. Don't expect a pork-tender rib, but these are deeply flavored with Mediterranean spices, served with tzatziki, the yogurt sauce most often associated with gyros, and meaty. Very good.
Wild mushroom pancakes, topped with spinach and a creamy, tart chevre, are delightful and unusual. That flavor you're not sure about? Cinnamon.
The roasted duck spring rolls are yet another excellent dish, crisp rolls full of duck confit.
While small plates, the portions are appropriate. Cheese plates are small but not skimpy for the price -- they're all $6 except for the excellent walnut-encrusted camembert ($8), served with fig preserves (called fig tapenade on the menu). We particularly liked the cabrales with Riojo-infused figs and Marcona almonds.
Chef Karen Roth, formerly of Erling Jensen: The Restaurant, is turning out excellent food at Alchemy. The bar mostly runs smoothly, even when busy. Service is very good, if a bit overly earnest.
And it's gorgeous.
Oh -- dessert. Crème brûlée is something that you shouldn't monkey with, as a general rule. Why mess with it? But a caramel apple crème brûlée? Brilliant. The flavor of the burnt sugar is in every bite from crunch to custard, there's a tiny nest of diced apples on top, and you don't want to miss it.
-- Jennifer Biggs: (901) 529-5223
Address: 940 S. Cooper.
Telephone: (901) 726-4444.
Hours: Daily, 4 p.m. until late night
Reviewer's choices: Rock shrimp and chorizo mac and cheese ($8); Denver lamb ribs ($15); roasted duck spring rolls ($10); Brussels sprouts with bacon, pistachios and Granny Smith apples ($6); creme brulee ($6); Dancin' Jimmy's Secret ($11).
Alcohol: Everything you'll want.
Poor: Zero stars
Good: One star
Very Good: Two stars
Excellent: Three stars
Extraordinary: Four stars