If you’ve not already been to The Alchemist on the top floor of the Trinity shopping arcade in Leeds city centre, then it’s worth a visit for the views alone.
The restaurant offers rooftop vistas of the city and even has an outside balcony so you can peer down at the cars and people in the streets below.
The main draw for this restaurant, as its name suggests, is serving food and drinks with a theatrical flourish, that in itself being a kind of mini revolution within the industry which went spiralling out of control a few years back when the likes of chef-cum-magician Heston Blumenthal were given free rein to mess with our minds by creating things like bacon and eggs which tasted like liquorice and peanut butter and being rather too liberal with the one-trick pony that is popping candy.
Thankfully, you won’t find such extravagant and quite frankly ludicrous monstrosities at The Alchemist. What you will find, however, is a initially alluring menu, replete with strange occult-like symbols and reproduction pre-Victorian etchings of cherubs and birds, old English landscapes with stylised depictions of the heavens and people in various statuesque poses, all of which you feel carry some sort of hidden meaning.
After all, these days food is almost an artform and here at The Alchemist, there’s plenty to beguile and intrigue.
We turned up unannounced on a Sunday and found the place pretty busy, so much so we had to wait for a table - it wasn’t a problem given the extensive and it has to be said enticing drinks menu. We couldn’t resist diving straight in and ordering two fruit juice cocktails, one apple (£2), one orange (£2.50), which were served in science-lab glass jars and were frothing over with steam - a nice touch. Still, I hankered for something a little stronger - in the end I went for a sweet Manhattan, a cocktail comprising Wild Turkey bourbon, Antica sweet vermouth and bitters, which is £7.50 (but £11.50 if you want it served in a hip flask which you then get to keep). There’s a neat option here too because if you return the flask to them, they will refill it free of charge, or you can just keep it as a souvenir. Did I keep it or return it? Let’s just say that was my childhood sweet shop moment.
My partner ordered a more sensible glass of white wine, a crisp and fruity Ponte Emiliano at a reasonable £4 a glass.
It wasn’t long before we were shown to our table - as far as I could see, all of the tables in The Alchemist offer decent views through the wall-to-ceiling windows. For all the theatrics at the bar, once you move into the restaurant proper, you find a minimalist, stripped-back interior with exposed pipework and ducting all painted in snow cloud grey and protruding into the main eating area like a giant thumb, the kitchen, a visual spectacle as the distressed apothecary cabinet surrounds clash with the functional steam and steel of a modern working kitchen. It’s a nice touch and it adds to the drama of the whole dining experience. As we ordered our starters, a sharing platter (£13.95), we were eagerly anticipating what would arrive on the table.
In the event, we received a nicely presented tray comprising prawns in batter, fried chicken, nachos and tiny dumplings, all of which were lovely, accompanied by guacamole and sweet chili dipping sauces. The food was good, cooked to perfection and a great appetiser.
In terms of main dishes, there wasn’t a great to choose from. One of the things which strikes you about The Alchemist is once you get past the frothy drinks and the herbal teas and strange symbols, the main menu offering is rather sparse and, dare we say, basic. There’s variations on a theme, so, things like fish and chips, scampi, fried chicken in a basket - nothing, so far, you couldn’t get in a typical cafe - and then there’s Thai red curry, chili and rice, Japanese noodle broth, fajitas, mackerel and steak.
Some might applaud the paired-down simplicity of this approach and point out The Alchemist also offers all-day breakfasts and an extensive range of starters but this does not detract from the fact the main menu offerings seem somewhat limited.
I went for fried chicken in a basket (£9.95), which came in a metal wire basket shaped like a chicken. I was asked if I wanted the chips ‘spicy’ and said yes. What they should have said was ‘salty’, because there was tons of the stuff. The dish was alright, nothing to tweet about, the chicken well seasoned and the home-made coleslaw fresh and creamy but the chips I mostly left, owing to the amount of salt on them.
My partner went for chicken ramen, a Japanese broth with noodles, which was light and tasty, although it was a bit like ‘hunt the noodles’ and felt more like a starter and for £10.95 was a touch expensive.
Desserts also proved underwhelming. I ordered affogato (£4.95), which was a single scoop of vanilla ice cream served in a spherical bowl, over which you pour your own coffee and liqueur - the coffee came in a small jar, while the liqueur came in a syringe. The waitress informed me in what order they should be poured and warned me to be slow with the syringe and so I was expecting dry ice to be cascading from the table but when I’d mixed the cocktail, nothing happened. It was nice but a fiver for a scoop of ice-cream is a bit steep in my book, even if it does come with 5mls of liqueur.
My partner had chocolate fudge cake, again a meagre slice for the price, £5.50, but heart-warmingly decadent all the same. The final bill rolled in at £69.30, a not unpalatable amount for what we had.
The Alchemist is an interesting place and, according to its website, is open until 2am two nights of the week, so if you fancy a late bite with a bit of froth and great views of the city, click your heels together. What could be better for Hallowe’en?