Who could pass a restaurant with such an intriguing name as Alchimy?
The question remained, however: could the chemistry of its food live up to its name?
I’m delighted to say in the case of this ground-floor brasserie nestled in an art deco style hotel of the same name in the historical center of Albi in France’s Tarn region, it did.
And not just in terms of food. Also in ambience.
Ushered in by friendly Laura Miquel we entered a room in the heart of the hotel bathed in natural light flooding through a diamond-shaped skylight from which hung a gigantic ‘frosted’ glass Murano chandelier with golden flecks. Saffron colored walls, stucco along the ceiling, white pillars, tall decorative amphora, checkered tile floors and Carrera marble sidelights enhanced the ambience even more.
A quick scan of the menu – from foie gras to oysters, gnocchi to duck confit, lamb sweetbreads to grilled cuttlefish – indicated there was a dish to suit every taste.
Choice was not easy but finally my companion and I decided to fuse meat and vegetarian starters and steal portions from each other’s plates, my companion opting for pig trotters with truffle, layered blanket-style, the juicy meat already sliced off the bone, with its nutritious jelly blended with crème fraîche and served as a mousse with a delicate crust atop.
Though tempted by the restaurant’s headline celeriac risotto in a bowl topped with melted parmesan, I instead went local, a soft fillet of Pyrenees trout with smoked cauliflower and carpaccio of graveleux on a bed of bean ratatouille.
For our mains, and being braver than I, who – squirming at the image of Mongol tribe members tenderizing their meat under their saddle – prefers his cuts bien cuit, my companion couldn’t resist the French classic, steak tartare. And wasn’t in the least disappointed, describing it as ‘seasoned to perfection.’ Even I overcame my prejudices and tried a nibble. And was surprisingly pleased.
I also felt the need to try a classic French meat dish, but this time from the sea not the land, and no better example of that than sole meunière. While it sounds like a fancy recipe, it is, according to some chefs, an extremely simple dish to cook, its flavor depending mainly on the quality of the ingredient itself and of course the quality of the butter and flour in which it is dipped (à la meunière means, after all, ‘in the style of the miller.’) Regardless of opinion, it can be one of the tastiest fish dishes one could ever savor – pan-fried and served with the resulting brown sauce, parsley and lemon, emerging with a moist texture and mild flavor.
Of course in France, careful choice of wine is key to one’s overall culinary enjoyment and on this all-important issue we relied solely on the skills of our sommelier, and our trust proved well placed. His experience shone through in dazzling style with a choice of two whites, a dry grape from the family-run Mas des Combes just north of Gaillac. Brilliant pale yellow in color, the wine’s delicate floral bouquet fused with notes of white flowers, grapefruit and exotic fruits. Equally pleasing was a full-flavoured blend of Mauzac and Len de l’El grapes from Domaine de Brin located between Albi, Gaillac and Cordes on a clay-limestone plateau. His choice of red was also commendable, a Mas des Combes Cuvée Coteaux d’Oustry, with silky tannins, a hint of blackberry and a peppery finish.
Embarrassingly, as often happens, we were the last to leave the restaurant, the main culprit for our tardiness being dessert. Whoever can resist a moelleux au chocolat with guaya sauce and melting bourbon vanilla ice-cream deserves a gold medal for discipline. We didn’t even come close.
And while, rightly, it takes about 15 minutes to prepare this luscious treat properly, it is well worth the wait, more so if it is paired with a glass of Maury, a fortified wine from the Roussillon region, often fused with brandy.