1503 30th Street, South Park
(Has gone out of business since this article was published.)
Alchemy doesn’t turn lead into gold, but its kitchen does turn good ingredients into palate-pleasers. Open seven months and well populated since Day One, it was bound to be a hit, given all the starving grown children of South Park. It’s only the third sophisticated restaurant along the whole 30th/Fern Street corridor from Switzer Canyon (dividing North from South Park) down to the concrete banks of the MLK freeway. It’s also, to my palate, the top choice. Given the automatic clientele, the food is delightfully better than it has to be — paraphrasing the old Lovin’ Spoonful hit, “You didn’t have to be so nice, we would have loved you anyway.” You sense a bohemian, multi-culti idealism built into the operation here, not solely a raw profit motive — that’s the South Park spirit!
Co-owners and former school friends Matt Thomas and Ron Troyamo started renovating the building (a few steps south of well-known Hamilton’s Bar) long before the restaurant opened but were foiled by a fire that gutted the property. They resumed and persevered, finally opening last February. The room is bright and golden-toned from all the wood, with local artists’ paintings on the walls and a huge “tree” sculpture dominating the dining room. But with uncarpeted floors, unclothed tables, and ambient music played loud, noise bounces around the hard surfaces. Looks great, sounds raucous, getting worse as the night latens and the room fills. That’s obviously the 30th Street spirit, too (where the sole island of sonic civility is Ritual Tavern, north of University).
Seasoned local chef Ricardo Heredia worked on the menu with a consulting chef from a chic New York restaurant. The food is light, healthy, sophisticated, designed for the fun of sharing among friends or feeding a happy singleton at the bar. Irene, smart server/sommelier from the late Better Half (for anonymity, I ate there on her night off), has been the house manager since opening, which may be why service seems more professional than at other idealistic restaurants on both sides of the canyon.
The menu consists mainly of grazes, ranging from small bites to substantial tapas, with a few full-size entrées and token desserts. “No fries for you this time, young lady,” I warned the Lynnester. “Too many other interesting items to try.” Mark and tall, dark, Scottish Sue completed the group. We began with a couple of tiny plates called “Snacks.” Melitzana Salata with lavash bread was minuscule but lavish in flavor — tender eggplant and puffs of salty cheese (tasted like feta, could be ricotta salata) with a gorgeous little salsa of ripe, fresh tomato chunks in herbed olive oil alongside to spread on torn-off pieces of lavash bread. Only problem: no spoon! Eggplant lovers may want one portion per person; I could have made a meal of this dish. Even so, it was eclipsed by winey-sweet piquillo peppers (a flavorful Spanish variety roasted over wood, available canned) stuffed with tender shreds of heritage Berkshire pork — a real “ta-da!” number.
Larger grazes are called “Smalls.” The plate of oysters and white gazpacho is small indeed, just two little farm-raised oysters from Carlsbad. They were rich and sweet — sweetened further by a scattering of champagne grapes, a fresh, clever combination. They came with a shot glass of strange, pale, salty liquid with more grapes atop — unidentifiable and odd. I suspect last winter’s green gazpacho (tomatillos) was more rewarding, but I’m a sucker for any oysters this impeccably fresh.
It’s also a treat to find un-fried calamari, a species adaptable to numerous creations, of which trendy frying is the least exciting. Calamari de Cadiz features juicy, tender rings and tentacles in a mini-casserole with country ham, white wine, and saffron butter, with lemon pugliese bread for dipping. Our table did a lot of dipping. And dipped even more into the sauce for gambas al ajillo, a classic Spanish tapa of shrimp served in a cast-iron mini-skillet with a sauce of olive oil, garlic, and paprika. For Spanish-food veterans Sue and I, it was a good, ordinary rendition. But Lynne and Mark were novices, to my surprise, and they were thrilled, scooping up so much sauce we needed to order extra bread. (“You must eat tapas in PB at Costa Brava,” I told them. “You’ve been missing a great cuisine. And the owner is charming and major cute, too.”)
Ceviche of minced fresh local sea bass was pleasing but ordinary, despite some elusive pickled mango supposedly hidden in there and (better yet) delicious toasted coriander seeds strewn all around. Long, faintly sweet strips of ripe crisped plantain served alongside weren’t fried like tostones but lightly brushed with oil and baked. A salad of local avocado and corn with Green Goddess dressing looked impressive — a thick disc of corn kernels surrounded by avocado and cucumber slices — but was mildly disappointing, corn-sweet, but needing a zestier dressing with more acidity or piquancy.
After another scorching day, the night was as warm and humid as New Orleans (evoking “sweet magnolia under the moonlight” — if only!) and we needed a lively cold bottle of white to refresh bodies and souls. The wine list comes in a small heavy booklet, like a preteen’s diary or photo collection. After a few affordable bottles at the low end of the list, it turns a little steep, but by a good guess I zeroed in on a perfect choice for weather and food, a well-chilled La Craie Vouvray ($32), a dry Loire-grown Chenin Blanc so fruity and lively it nearly jumped out of the glass. For the second round, nobody wanted anything other than more of the same.
We split two entrées. “Market-fresh” vegetable lasagna came from a list of seasonal summer entrées. Based on delicate, fresh-made thin pasta, it included baby spinach, roasted cremini mushrooms, and grilled eggplant, plus ricotta and fresh mozzarella, basil, and fresh tomato sauce. Grilling the eggplant made it firm-tender, avoiding the oiliness of the sautéed vegetable. Ditto, roasting the mushrooms. With these firm-tender textures, meat was superfluous, even undesirable. “I never thought lasagna could be so light,” said Lynne happily. The essence of balmy late summer, it offered all the indulgence of a classic lasagna, minus the grease.