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Alchemy N' Ale Gastropub in Lawrenceville refines classic dishes

| Sunday, March 11, 2012

Alchemy, the forerunner of chemistry, was a process by which medieval practitioners tried to turn base metals into gold.

Chef Patrick MacFarlane's goal at Alchemy N' Ale Gastropub in Lawrenceville is the culinary equivalent: to "take a simple product and elevate it to something completely different. We're taking classic dishes from pubs and refining and 'upscaling' them," says MacFarlane, 35, of O'Hara.

Diners, thus, might see something simple, like the British Isles' standby Shepherd's Pie, on Alchemy N' Ale's menu. But the rich layering of ingredients and depth of flavor takes the dish to a higher, more pleasurable level.

MacFarlane takes a classic fish sandwich and uses Guinness beer to puff up the tempura batter so it's light and airy. The fish sandwich is accompanied by Minted Mushy Peas. Peas traditionally are served with fish in Great Britain.

"Everybody seems to love it," MacFarlane says of the peas. "A lot of people order it by itself."

Not all entrees contain meat or fish. Alchemy N' Ale has a few vegetarian dishes, including Beets Panzanella, a twist on an Italian-bread salad, which includes beets that are salt-roasted to bring out the flavor, croutons made with hard-crusted bread and goat cheese, and different varieties of lettuce.

MacFarlane has loved the idea of cooking for restaurants since age 8, when he watched with fascination the Phantom Diner restaurant critic on local television. His mother, an Irish immigrant and excellent cook in her own right, allowed her cuisine-obsessed young son to cook at home.

Cooking for wages at age 15 in fast-food restaurants, MacFarlane later attended the Pennsylvania Culinary Institute here. He did his externship at the renowned Tribeca Grill in New York City. The Myriad Restaurant Group, which owned Tribeca, later sent MacFarlane back to Pittsburgh to work at the then-new Steelhead Grill because of his higher-level culinary skills learned at Tribeca.

After several years going back and forth between restaurants in Pittsburgh and New York, where his mother had moved, he settled here. But after a couple of bad experiences with restaurants that closed for various reasons, MacFarlane spent five years as a restaurant consultant.

"Then, I ended up here," he says of Alchemy N' Ale, owned by Big Tree Entertainment, a group of primarily local investors.

Alchemy N' Ale seats 28 at rustic tables in the main dining room, which has exposed-brick walls and upholstered banquettes. Another 19 people can sit in the bar. The menu changes seasonally, depending on the produce available. The kitchen staff prides itself on using fresh ingredients, including meats from Foster's Meats next door.

Shepherd's Pie

Shepherd's Pie is a savory meat-and-potatoes casserole popular in the United Kingdom and Ireland. The name is used in England and Ireland, although the British more often use beef in their version, and the Irish use lamb in their Shepherd's Pie, which is more appropriate, as a shepherd looks after sheep.

Alchemy N' Ale's Patrick MacFarlane, who is half-Irish, courtesy of his Irish-born mother (the other half is Scottish), uses beef in the gastropub's version.

If cooks choose to prepare it to commemorate St. Patrick's Day on Saturday, they should set aside time to prepare parts of the dish over two days. The flavorful results are worth the effort.

For the beef (to be prepared the previous day)

  • 2 1/2 pounds flank steak
  • 2 1/2 pounds boneless short ribs
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 3 tablespoons ground espresso beans
  • 2 tablespoons whole peppercorns
  • 10 sprigs thyme
  • 4 medium-size garlic bulbs, cut in half horizontally across cloves
  • 5 bay leaves
  • 2 large carrots, coarsely chopped
  • 1 large onion, coarsely chopped
  • 3 ribs celery, coarsely sliced
  • 4 cups red wine
  • Water, as needed

For the carrots:

  • 3 bay leaves
  • 1 tablespoon black peppercorns
  • 6 medium-size carrots, cut in quarters, then sliced 1/2-inch thick
  • Water
  • Salt

For the mashed-potato topping:

  • 4 medium-size garlic bulbs, cut in half across cloves
  • 1 tablespoon black peppercorns
  • 10 thyme springs
  • 4 bay leaves
  • 3 pounds whole red-skin potatoes, skins left on
  • Water
  • Salt
  • 1 pound sweet cream, unsalted butter
  • 3 cups heavy cream

For the onion jam (can be prepared in advance)

  • 1 large yellow onion, julienned
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 cup beer or lager, any brand
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

For the pie:

  • 1/2 can black-truffle peelings or 4 tablespoons black-truffle oil
  • 3 cups demi-glace (see note )
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • Prepared beef, shredded
  • 4 ounces red wine
  • Prepared carrots
  • 1 cup fresh peas
  • Half onion jam recipe
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • Prepared mashed red-skin potatoes
  • 1 cup parmesan cheese

To make the beef: Heat the oven to 300 degrees. Season the flank and ribs with salt and pepper; season the ribs only with the ground espresso. Sear the ribs on a grill or in a cast-iron pan to carmelize and render some fat. Place the peppercorns, thyme, garlic and bay leaves in cheesecloth. Place in a roasting pan with the other ingredients except the water. Add the water until the pan is three-quarters full. Cover the pan in aluminum foil and place in a 300-degree oven for at least 6 hours; optimally, 12 hours.

To make the carrots: Wrap the bay leaves and peppercorns in cheesecloth and tie in bundle. Place the carrots and bundle in a medium-size saucepan with water to cover. Heavily salt the water. Bring the pot to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer until the carrots are about 75 percent cooked. Drain the carrots and chill, discarding the bundle.

To make the mashed-potato topping: Wrap the garlic, peppercorns, thyme and bay leaves in cheesecloth and tie in bundle. Place the bundle in a large pot with the potatoes and cover with water. Heavily salt the water. Bring to a boil and reduce to a heavy simmer, cooking until the potatoes are tender when tested with a knife. If the knife slides out easily, the potatoes are cooked. Drain the potatoes thoroughly and discard the bundle. Make sure the potatoes are dry, then place them in a large mixing bowl. Melt the butter in a saute pan, and heat with the heavy cream until hot. Add the butter-heavy cream mixture a little at a time to the potatoes while mashing with a hand masher, adjusting the consistency of the mash according to the potatoes. Keep the potatoes somewhat chunky. Set aside.

To make the onion jam: Sweat the onions in butter in a thick-bottom pot or saute pan over medium-high heat. (Always use butter to sweat onions, as oil will cause a chemical reaction that will make the onions bitter and double the cooking time.) When the onions are translucent, turn the heat to high and start to carmelize them, until the color of the onions is between light and dark brown. Deglaze the pan with the beer; reduce the liquid by half. Season with salt and pepper. Reserve half of the onion jam for the finishing step below, and the rest for another dish. Or, combine the other half with mayonnaise for a tasty roast-beef sandwich condiment.

To make the pie : Note: Purchase demi-glace in specialty stores or make your own by making veal stock and reducing by three-fourths to produce 3 cups.

Heat the oven to 500 degrees.

Add the black-truffle peelings or truffle oil to the demi-glace and simmer. Place the butter in a thick-bottom separate pan, add the meat and saute. Deglaze the pan with the wine. To the pan, add the carrots, fresh peas, demi-glace, half the prepared onion jam and salt and pepper. Heat thoroughly, breaking up the meat, if necessary. Place the mixture in large casserole dish or individual crocks. Cover the mixture with a layer of the mashed potatoes and top with 1 cup parmesan cheese.

Place the casserole in a 500-degree oven for 10 to 15 minutes, until the top is golden brown. Remove from the oven and let the casserole rest for 10 minutes before serving.

Makes about 8 servings.

Additional Information:

Alchemy N' Ale Gastropub

Cuisine: Upscale classic pub dishes

Hours : 5-11 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 5 p.m.-midnight Fridays-Saturdays, closed Sundays and Mondays. Might open for lunch and brunch in April.

Entree price range: $10-$22

Notes: Accepts reservations for parties six or larger and all major credit cards. Ten beers on tap, 100 bottled varieties, also specialty cocktails and wines; highchairs available.

Location: 5147 Butler St., Lawrenceville

Details: 412-252-2156 or website

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