It was a lovely spring evening. As we were sitting at a back table, nursing a beer and looking out the open front door of Alchemy, a companion - who lives in Nakoma - said, "This is really nice. People walking their dogs, pushing baby strollers, all kinds of people - it's really a neighborhood."
And that about sums up the magic of Alchemy, of Schenk's Corner, of the Atwood neighborhood. You could never picture this restaurant and bar in Nakoma. Not even on State Street. When Wonders Pub closed last February, the locals were worried that they had lost a great neighborhood hangout, a place they could depend on for good food, good beer, good music and good friends.
Not to worry. As Mom said, when one door closes, another one opens. This time it happened to be the same door. The place was taken over by Josh Wacker, Amanda Bersh, and Michael Randall - a trio of twentysomethings - and now the same neighbors are once again enjoying good food, good beer, good music and each other. The two-month renovation preserved the original homey ambiance, and the menu has been kicked up a notch.
There is live music at Alchemy six evenings a week, and while the music is playing, don't plan on having an intimate conversation. But do enjoy the music. There's no cover charge.
We start with beer. The printed list of bottled beers is quite ordinary, but the selection of tap brews is enough to please any aficionado. The beers - hand-written on a board because they change so often - range from intriguing to exciting. On this evening there were four Michigan imports (Bell's Java Stout, Bell's Oberon Ale, Atwater Block, Atwater Vanilla Java Porter); three local offerings (Capital Maibock, Lake Louie, Asylum Nut Brown Ale); and an Oregon ringer, Rogue Dead Guy Ale.
I couldn't resist the last, and was more than pleased. Dead Guy is a German-style maibock, deep honey colored, with a rich, malty flavor. Goes down easy.
Alchemy's menu is limited to soups, salads and sandwiches, but the kitchen makes the most of these. The appetizers seem designed to pair well with beer. The onion rings are as big as doughnuts, puffed up with beer batter and suitably greasy, served with two dipping sauces, one herbed buttermilk, the other arbol chile and citrus barbecue. If there's an onion hall of fame, these are prime candidates.
Homemade lime corn chips, served with a roasted corn and pomegranate salsa, weren't particularly exciting, but we did love the vegetarian Greek dolmades, 10 of the bite-sized stuffed grape leaves served hot with a dish of feta and another of garlic and dill cucumber yogurt sauce.
The burger here is one of the best in town. Called the AppleRum Burger, it is a one-third-pound patty layered with applewood-smoked bacon topped with a sweet onion rum relish, Wisconsin cheddar, lettuce and tomato, all on a beautiful homemade raised roll. Also noteworthy is the tarragon ham sandwich, honey-glazed ham topped with melted Swiss, lettuce, tomato, slathered with tarragon-chive mayonnaise on a cornmeal-crusted roll.
Everything is made from scratch at Alchemy, and that includes the french fries, which are cut broad and flat to fry up quickly to a golden brown.
All sandwiches come with one of four sides - the fries, a green salad, fresh potato salad or green beans with wasabi sesame seeds. I highly recommend the last, fresh (not frozen) green beans sautéed perfectly tender-crisp, enlivened with the wasabi sesame. It's difficult to choose between the green beans and fries with your burger, but since an extra side is only two dollars, why choose? Get both.
Other sandwiches include a buffalo burger, sweet curry shrimp salad and a BLFT - beer-battered and fried tomato with bacon, lettuce and thyme-garlic mayo.
This being Madison, there are ample vegetarian offerings: a grilled balsamic-glazed portabella sandwich; a grilled Swiss and cheddar sandwich stuffed with vegetables and cilantro pesto sauce; and two salads, a house green salad and the Brutus - romaine, Roma tomatoes, red onion, red pepper and sourdough croutons. There are also several homemade soups offered daily, prepared by neighbor Jennie Capellaro.
This being Madison, there is also a Friday fish fry.
If you have room for dessert, go for the apple pie, this one made by Bobbie Harte. Flaky crust, juicy and not-too-sweet apples, and just the right amount of cinnamon let the apples speak for themselves. There is also a very large serving of bread pudding and, if you have just a small corner of your tummy left for dessert, a delectable mini-cheesecake, cupcake-sized.
The medieval art of alchemy supposedly involved turning ordinary items (e.g., lead) into quite valuable items (e.g., gold). Can less be said of turning malt and hops into great beer? Or ordinary grape leaves and rice into beautiful dolmades? Surely not. On a lovely spring evening on Schenk's Corner, I am ready to believe.