As regular readers will be aware, Forks-Up is generally a London based operation, but we do make the occasional foray outside the M25. This week’s restaurant review is very much a first though, as we made our virgin visit up north, to The Alchemist, one of the hippest venues in Leeds’ new Trinity shopping centre. Booking just a few days ahead, the only available tables for four were at 6.15pm or midnight. Needless to say, we went for the early slot. When we arrived, the place was buzzing, with a queue 3 people deep to get to the bar, all uber-trendy guys, and girls dressed to the nines. Our party was led through the throng to a high table with comfy leather bar stools, next to the balcony and with a great view of the semi-open kitchen where chefs were dashing to get the food out to the already packed restaurant. With white walls, high ceilings and floor length windows to the balcony, The Alchemist exudes a feeling of space despite the crowds, and the chart music plays just loud enough to lend the place a little bit of a party ambience, but soft enough to allow for relaxed conversation.
Once at our table, we were given several minutes to peruse the menu. That was ample time to choose our food from a relatively brief but somewhat random selection that covered Mexican, Japanese, Asian and classic American, but had us in a bit of a hurry trying to select our drinks from the mammoth cocktail list, which runs the gamut from classics through to molecular mixology. On the food side, two of our party chose to begin with nachos topped with melted cheese and jalapenos, and potato skins loaded with bacon and cheese and served with sour cream dip. The other two of us opted to share two starters between us: crispy baby calamari with lemon mayonnaise, and a goats cheese and roast fig salad. The calamari were beautifully tender, but sadly the batter was a touch on the oily side and the lemon mayonnaise not quite lemony enough, though the dusting of paprika on top did give it a lively little kick. The salad was the better dish, with the sweetness of the roasted fig contrasting well with the slightly acrid tang of the goat’s cheese. The leaves were baby spinach, served ever so slightly wilted, and the salad was topped with toasted flaked almonds which added a richness of flavour and pleasant crunch. The dressing, stated in the menu to be orange blossom honey, was rather too subtle for my taste, but overall this was a decent starter.
The main courses were a bit of a mixed bag. One of our party enjoyed “chicken in a basket” – deep fried crispy chicken pieces, served with fries and coleslaw, in a basket. She seemed to enjoy her food well enough, but was far more taken by the fact that the basket was actually shaped like a chicken. Novelty presentation was a bit of a feature, as another of our party discovered with his choice of Japanese ramen noodles, which arrived at the table as a large copper pot, and a conical flask full of an orange tinted, bubbling potion which appeared to be giving off vast quantities of smoke. The waitress deftly poured the flask’s contents over the dry ingredients in the pot, et voila, dinner was served! The third member of our party chose a healthy sounding grilled fillet of sea bass served with coriander rice and diced tomato. Presented on a huge, white dinner plate, the minuscule fillet of fish looked rather measly and out of proportion in comparison to the giant mound of white rice, shot through with roughly chopped coriander. Nevertheless, it seemed to go down well. My own main course, of crispy Cajun chicken fajitas, looked a treat as it arrived with the vegetables and chicken still sizzling on a hot skillet. And it was certainly quite tasty – the small flour tortillas were pliable and light, the tomato salsa had a subtle tang, the Cajun chicken pieces were decently spiced (though unfortunately not that crispy), and the rather tiny pile of grated cheddar was impressively mature. There were a couple of disappointments though, as the guacamole tasted somewhat too lime-y and was a little over smooth, almost as if it had been pressed through a sieve. The vegetables were passable – the peppers were pleasantly sweet, but they did get a little lost in the mountain of slightly overcooked onions, and the additional side of coleslaw was a bit of an oddity. Don’t get me wrong, it was a very good coleslaw, with just the right balance of cabbage, carrot and onion, and it wasn’t over-dressed with mayo, but in my opinion it just didn’t go with the fajitas.
As for desserts, we got just two between the four of us. One was a rather decadent, gooey chocolate fudge cake, served warm and topped with a scoop of vanilla ice-cream, and the other – which I had to try just for the spectacle – was a rum baba served with strawberry coulis and vanilla ice-cream, flambéed at the table with a shot of Old J Spiced rum. While it looked incredible, it tasted only pleasant – the baba itself was a touch on the dry side, despite its rum bath, while the strawberry coulis was ever so slightly too sweet.
So the food might not have entirely hit the spot, but the real reason to visit The Alchemist, it has to be said, is the drinks. Seated where we were, away from the bar, we unfortunately didn’t get to see the bartenders and mixologists in action, but the cocktails were nothing short of incredible. We had two each over the course of our meal, and I couldn’t possibly describe them all, but I will attempt to give a few highlights. The Colour Changing One is a vodka-based cocktail which is brought to the table as a rocks glass and two baby conical flasks – one of blue and the other of faintly yellowish liquid. Our waitress instructed us to pour the blue into the glass first, and it started to emit a white smoke as we did so. Then we added the yellow liquid and the whole mixture began to bubble like a high school science experiment, spewing clouds of white smoke as it went. When it eventually calmed down, we were left with a sweet pinkish concoction, with hints of apple and cherry – a feast for the eyes and a pleasure to drink. A rum-based Cola Bottle Libra had us all intrigued – served in an old fashioned soda bottle, this completely clear liquid tasted exactly like a cola bottle sweet. The similarity was almost unnerving, though the solitary cola bottle sweet that sat at the bottom appeared to have been drained of flavour – the member of our party who ate it described it as tasting “like soggy jelly”. My own choices, a Caramelised Rum Punch and a Strawberry Cup, were rather more ordinary in appearance, but both were brilliantly flavourful. The rum punch was perfectly pitched, with sweet pineapple juice balanced by spicy hints of cinnamon and nutmeg, and an undercurrent of rummy warmth that kept going and didn’t dilute even as the ice was melting. The strawberry cocktail was vodka-based, and a vivid red – it tasted like liquid strawberry jam, just kept away from over-sweetness by the hint of fresh mint and the charge of ginger ale at the top.
Service was friendly and not over-hurried. While we had been warned of a two hour turnaround time on our table, we were offered dessert with just ten minutes to go and weren’t rushed into settling up when we asked for the bill fifteen minutes after we should have left. In terms of value, I was told by the two locals in our party that The Alchemist is a touch on the pricey side for Leeds. For a Londoner, however, it is nothing short of a bargain. The food, I suppose, is averagely priced given the varying quality, with mains ranging from £10 to £15 and starters and desserts around the £5 mark. But at approximately £7 for an artisan cocktail, I simply couldn’t fault the drinks prices. With two and a half courses, two cocktails and service coming in at £35 per head, The Alchemist certainly shows that things are cheaper up north. In terms of score, the cocktails alone would easily merit a full five Forks-Up. The rather more hit and miss food, however, does drag The Alchemist down, resulting in a final score of four Forks-Up. Not that this is likely to affect its success – as if to prove that The Alchemist really is *the* place to be seen in Leeds, we spotted none other than Rio Ferdinand being ushered past the waiting crowds as we made our way out.The Alchemist Level 1, Trinity LS1 6HW Leeds T: 0113 246 0540