Wednesday, 28 February 2018
The Alchemist, Oxford: visuals over substance
- What was the best part of dinner out?
- The smoke...
I don't often go out for dinner, but this week I'm celebrating my big fat birthday, and I've been looking for ideas online. I fancied trying something new and different, and having read Mary's from Over40AndMumtoOne blog review of The Alchemist, I thought it could be one of the possible options.
We were planning to go out with our 7-year-old son, when our elder son was staying overnight in the respite home. I showed Eddie the post with the photos and video and he was very enthusiastic about trying a cocktail for kids.
The Alchemist is situated on the roof floor of the newly rebuilt West Gate centre. The people behind the concept of The Alchemist proclaim they "dispense a bewitching blend of molecular mixology, innovative dining and a dash of our trademark theatrical presentation".
Bold and brave promises. But do they deliver?
We booked a table online for 6.15pm, as this was the only available option for an earlier dinner. We didn't want to eat out late, as it was a school night, and we still had to travel from Oxford.
By the time we arrived - the bus we planned to take never came, and the one which came later was very slow - we had max 5 minutes before our booked time, so we had no time to explore anything in West Gate centre.
We still had to wait a little bit before our table was ready. We looked at the snow storm against the dark sky, and were glad to be inside.
First impressions of The Alchemist? Too dark and too loud. I don't like having dinner, when you can hardly hear your friends over a din of music.
It was packed full, and looks like a busy place. If you are thinking of visiting it, I'd recommend booking in advance.
The design of menus was stylish, clever and quirky. The drinks menu is styled as the Mendeleev's periodic table.
There were some classic cocktails like Mojito, Daiquiri or Screwball, and there were cocktails with unconventional names like Barrel Aged Corpse Reviver, Bubblebath or Shrub a Dub Dub.
I have chosen their much-hyped Lightbulb Moment, which is a combination of Tanqueray gin, Pimms, ginger beer, raspberry, lemon and mint.
My husband opted for Lady Marmalade - a mix of Chase marmalade vodka, Belsazar Vermouth, bergamot, lemon, orange and grapefruit.
The presentation of cocktails was very impressive: they were served in chemical lab-style glassware (or in a lighbulb-shaped glass in my case), with dry ice.
Once you pour the drinks over ice, it looks pretty spectacular, with the smoke wafting over the table.
Regarding the taste, I'm on the fence. My cocktail tasted mostly of ginger beer, which at £9 felt like a rather pricey ginger beer, albeit a fortified one. It was OK, but nothing special.
The same could be said about all our cocktails: it was a case of visuals over substance.
Our friends had a drink called Mad Hatters Tea, it was a very strange concoction of vodka, Cointreau, elderflower, fresh fruit and veg (there was a sliced passion fruit, strawberry, cucumber) in a big glassware, set over fire. It looked cool, but there was not much of it, once all the smoke was gone.
As a piece of showmanship it was top marks.
Eddie was pleased with his cocktail for children, called Bubblygum (£4.85). He felt like a young Harry Potter doing his magic lesson, pouring drink over ice.
You cannot deny the theatrical aspect, it is well done. It's an entertainment for both grown-ups and children alike.
I think this might be the place to go for cocktails, when you want to impress someone you're dating.
The food was average. Again, nice presentation, but rather mediocre cooking skills.
For a starter I had vegetable gyozas with sweet chilli sauce. Other starters included Thai salmon fish cakes and Feta & pesto filo rolls.
Children can choose either a Bento box with fish fingers, mini burgers or chicken, fries, peas or beans and crudites or wraps.
Our starters were served, but poor Eddie was sitting without any food. I offered him gyozas, he had a bite but didn't like it. Why did they think it was a good idea to serve grown-ups first and then for a child to wait for his meal until the adults had mains?
I have chosen a Tandoori Seabass fillet with vegetables. Now, seabass is a tasty fish on its own, it does not need much of added flavours. The spices were a total overkill. All I could taste was spice, not fish.
Beetroot risotto looked not very appetising.
Eddie ate most of his Bento box. He loved the presentation, but said my burgers were better.
We could not fault the wine we had with our dinner - Rioja Blanco was beautiful.
The list of desserts is short: Pornstar posset with prosecco foam, Cinnamon waffles with vanilla ice cream, Baked lemon cheesecake, Chocolate fudge cake, Chocolate brownie and Sticky toffee pudding, all with vanilla ice cream.
I didn't fancy anything stodgy and asked for a bit of ice cream, which Eddie was happy to help me with.
Children's menu dessert choice was between a brownie and a lolly (those which you can buy a dozen for a pound in a Poundland shop).
I imagine in summer it is a great place to sit outside on the veranda and watch the town lights from above.
It was a fun experience, we loved meeting our friends and sampling novelty cocktails, but I don't think I would want to dine there again.
If you are curious about the total sum, we paid just over £158 (that's for 4 adults and a child).
When we were leaving, I asked Eddie, what was the best part of eating out at The Alchemist. He replied: the smoke. Out of the mouths of the babes...