“What are some good places you know?”
Oh, the question. In any conversation, an enthusiast silently and secretly waits for the question to be asked. It’s the question that once asked will unlock the bounty of knowledge that is at constant unrest inside the brain of the enthusiast. The question that will unleash a torrent of thoughts, opinions and pontifications. When presented to some people, the question will cause a four-hour marathon one-sided conversation that will consist of more exclamations and excited hand gestures then an average person experiences in a month’s time.
Anyone who has a sincere passion for something anticipates the question being asked. In my case, its anticipation coupled with nervousness, because I’m not entirely confident in the amount of my knowledge on my given topic of interest. I’m interested, invested, but how schooled am I?
It should be simple enough to answer a basic question like “What are some good places you know?” but asked at the wrong time and my mind goes completely blank. It can lead to pretty mediocre suggestions.
“Good… good places? Uh… well, there’s… um…. you know…. that new place… remember that one place that closed down last year…. well…. You know, everyone likes Primanti’s!”
(Note: Please advise that this is an example and not a statement of true feelings on the behalf of the writer on the topic of Pittsburgh’s beloved chain of behemoth sandwich mongers.)
Anyway, for people like me who have trouble thinking on their feet (and in their stomachs), Urbanspoon – apologies if it seems like I’m mentioning this site a lot, I just seem to have endless uses for it – allows its members to save desired restaurant finds on a wishlist. Mine started off small enough – a few highly lauded locations – but quickly ballooned. At first, I tried to stick to stuff that was seemingly doable, places in my average price range or easily accessible to my location, but now, I just add anything recommended to me or that sounds desirable in any way. What’s more, I’ve become a bit of a new restaurant hunter and have started to watch the listings of new places recently opened or soon to be opened, and now I add those listings onto my wishlist.
My humble wishlist has grown to more than thirty places, which seems a little like overkill. I’ll be lucky if I get to an eighth of these places by the end of the year. But what it lacks in realistic expectations it compensates for in its new use as the answer to the question. For instance, in this situation with my friend’s birthday, I advised her to do the reasonable thing:
“Oh, check my wishlist on Urbanspoon. I’ve got all kinds of places on there.”
That long and rambling tangent was how we ended up at Alchemy N’ Ale, a new restaurant on Butler Street in Lawrenceville, taking over the spot left vacant by the departed Mama Rosa. The co-owner and head chef of A’N’A served as executive chef at Tribeca Grill in New York, known for its star-studded clientele and star-driven ownership (Robert De Niro is a co-owner), and he’s brought a similar culinary sensibility to this gastropub, only at a slightly more affordable price range for the average Pittsburgh diners.
So, how did the wishlist gamble pay off?
The five of us (six, if you count the baby) started things off right with a cheese plate. For $10, you get three cheese selections in a large enough quantity to feed a table of eight, let alone a table of five. Coupled with the cheese were a pile of gherkins and cocktail onions, a pool of jelly, and a few slices of toasted bread with olive oil. We hacked into it right away, despite not really knowing what we were diving into. Sure, we could identify the blue cheese, and the swiss, but the third cheese, a hunk of sturdy, hard dairy, was a mystery to us. We wagered guesses amongst ourselves, and our waitress confirmed the majority suspicion that the cheese was, in fact, Gruyere. Not saying they need to do anything as silly as labeled cheese flags, but it might be nice to have the waitstaff prepared with the information when they first take the order.
Bright greens and a drizzle of creme fraiche adorned the salt-roasted beets that were our second starter. The golden beets were roasted and coupled with pickled grapefruit. While the cheese held us in sway with its heavy, creamy dairy powers, the beets were sneakily enticing, refreshing in every juicy bite. The greens added a peppery bite to the sourness of the grapefruit, while the creme fraiche smoothed out the finish of each bite.
Our third starter, Alchemy fries, came to us topped with crunchy greens and swimming in a pool of truffle gravy. Our veg dining companion bemoaned the triple-fried potatoes, which were deliciously cooked in beef fat, but the rest of us dug right in. (Although, because I don’t regularly consume red meat or red meat-derived food products, I paid for it later.) There was the perfect amount of gravy, just enough to coat the thick-cut fries evenly, but not so much that it overwhelmed other flavors. With a gravy as rich as this, the sparing use was welcome and well done.
We were fairly wowed by our starters, and the order of entrees started off promisingly enough. The truffle gravy made a reappearance in Jason’s shepherd’s pie, but the tender meat was the star feature. Underneath the cloud-like layer of potato lie chunks of flank steak that Jason deemed were nearly “as soft as the mashed potatoes.” I tried a bite and he was absolutely right.
While Alchemy N’ Ale is fairly veg-friendly in their starters, the vegetarian entrees consist of only one pasta dish. Candace isn’t one to back down from a good meal regardless, so her entree course consisted of two sides: Grilled stalks of asparagus in truffle gravy and topped by Parmesan and a fried egg and a simple bowl of roasted wild mushrooms.
The mushrooms were fine, nothing spectacular, but the asparagus was some of the best that she or I had ever eaten. The grilled stalks gave a smokey flavor to the entire plate, a flavor that worked especially well with the fried egg, which was fried until crispy on the edges, the way Candace prefers.
Crab-stuffed pierogies. Truth be told, that’s the entire reason the place was on my wishlist to begin with. The idea was simple but undeniably appealing for a Pittsburgher and Polish girl – take the crab cake and stuff it into some delicious dough pockets, then fry them up with bacon, corn, and big juicy rounds of onion.
Unfortunately, the accompanying ingredients were somewhat more notable than the pierogies themselves. The problem was proportions. The taste was lost amidst dough and bacon and onion, to the point that each of us trying a bite of the dish admitted that while the dough was very good, crispy and flavorful, we could not taste the crab.
Jackie, the birthday girl, had wanted the crab-stuffed pierogies, and after the cheese and truffle fries, I was ready for something lighter, so I ordered the pasta. It came tossed with asparagus, mushrooms, corn, peas, herbs, all lightly dressed in Parmesan broth and olive oil. But again, the more delicate members of the dish suffered because of other overwhelming agents. While the pasta was a welcome change of pace from the usual noodle selections, it was the wrong call to go with one so thick and doughy. It drowned out the vegetables it was tossed with, notably the corn and peas which disappeared to the bottom of the dish and required heavy-duty fork excavation to retrieve.
The overall result was too one-note in flavor for my liking. The asparagus dotting the dish was tasty, but could have benefited from a trip to the grill with Candace’s. Something needed to pop in this dish, but the pasta drowned out any element that tried.
Meg ordered the lobster roll, which came with another hearty dose of triple-cooked fries. There was a lot of lobster to be found in this sandwich, but we both thought the bun was a disappointment, too thin and chewy, not enough base to give the lobster a neutral counterpoint. Which is too bad, because it blanded out what could have been dueling notes of fresh-baked and fresh-from-the-sea, the core contrast in any successful lobster roll.
Despite our minor complaints with our entrees and a little indifference on the part of our waitress, we did really enjoy our visit to the restaurant. The decor was lovely and unique, the atmosphere chilled and low-key. Because of its lack of vegetarian entrees and its decent-but-not-great draft list, it wouldn’t exactly be the place I’d run back to, but for a cool place to take a group of mixed diners, it’s definitely still on my list.