What has happened at 940 South Cooper is nothing short of alchemy.
photography by Justin Fox Burks
In just six months, owners Bert Smythe and John Littlefield have converted two empty restaurant spaces — the erstwhile Grace and Au Fond — into what is, by all accounts, a gold mine on the local dining map.
My first visit to this Cooper-Young hot spot known as Alchemy — with its high vaulted ceilings, massive square bar, a variety of dining spaces, and designer lighting — took place during its soft opening, when the owners were still ironing out some kinks. For my second visit, I decided to go headlong into the fray, opting for Friday night dinner, knowing full well that tables go fast on the weekend and I could be in for a wait as early as 7 p.m. Alchemy only takes reservations for parties of ten or more, so my dining companions and I went at 6:30 to be on the safe side, and we were seated immediately.
A quick perusal of the menu, which is based on a small plates concept, brought some items to the fore: Rock shrimp and chorizo mac and cheese, Denver lamb ribs with tzatziki sauce, Brussels sprouts with bacon, pistachios, and Granny Smith apples.
We were told that one or two small plates per person would be enough food for the table to share, so for our group of four we ordered wild mushroom pancakes with wilted spinach and chèvre, Manchego cheese and roasted red bell peppers in sherried cumin dressing, pan-seared Diver scallops over creamy roasted corn and edamame succotash, roasted duck spring rolls with spicy orange dipping sauce, and brandied smoked duck sausage with apple braised red cabbage.
I place a high premium on the treatment of vegetables, and chef Karen Roth rises to the standard: The wilted mushroom pancakes have been a favorite of mine since my first visit to Alchemy, and the smoky, sweet Brussels sprouts (which can be made with or without bacon) are flavorful enough to soften even the staunchest vegetable foe. Also highly recommended is the roasted asparagus with Romesco sauce.
Unrepentant carnivores won’t be disappointed either. The lamb ribs are succulent, not greasy, and come crusted in a blend of Greek spices. The rock shrimp and chorizo mac and cheese topped with Panko crumbs is elevated comfort food — rich but spicy, and enough for one person’s entrée.
Though every dish boasts an elevated flair, Chef Roth says these are all recipes she’s been cooking for herself at home for the past five years. It’s no wonder then that each plate comes out as effortlessly as if your mother were cooking up a family meal she’s been making for decades.
I returned for drinks and dinner on a Tuesday afternoon, and found the atmosphere much calmer. Weekend dinners can be tricky for conversationalists, as the large dining room amplifies every sound, but early on a weekday was perfect for catching up with an old friend. We wound up drinking a few of the handmade cocktails and sampling the chile roasted fish tacos — the highlight of the meal. I ordered them on my first visit last November, and found them uninspiring, but this second tasting vaulted them to the top of my list.
Alchemy’s cocktails are a force to be reckoned with, made from high-quality ingredients, freshly muddled fruits, and fresh juices and herbs. We were particularly taken with the “Pearl White” — a clean mix of Plymouth gin, Lillet Blanc, lemon, and mint leaves — which is not too sweet and perfect for summer weather. The Dancin’ Jimmy’s Secret is another you won’t want to miss. Made with Ciroc vodka, freshly squeezed lime, and whole muddled grapes, this is one of the most unusual items on their menu and has a refreshing, almost slushy consistency.
The desserts are not the most exciting part of the menu, but the trio of cheesecakes does make a lovely sampler. Roth changes the menu frequently, but on our visit the trio consisted of a Chai cheesecake with a thin vanilla biscotti, pear cheesecake with maple syrup, and a chocolate cheesecake with pretzels and caramel. We were surprised to find the pear was our favorite. The delicate pear flavor mixed perfectly with the 100 percent maple syrup, a combination Roth remembers from her childhood in western New York. (In fact, she brings in the pure maple syrup directly from that area.)
At the end of both of my visits, I stepped out into Cooper-Young, having forgotten for a few hours that I was even in Memphis. Alchemy just has the kind of atmosphere that allows it to be many things — a bar, a tapas hangout, a dinner spot — to many people — casual foodies, scenesters, East Memphis couples, and Downtown singles. But above all else, it’s a force on the restaurant scene, consistently putting good food on the table and excellent drinks on the bar. And that’s worth its weight in gold.