Alchemi cooks up magic in Royal Oak’s former Mr. B’s Gastropub

Chu Chee Salmon.
Chu Chee Salmon. Tom Perkins


215 S. Main St., Royal Oak
Handicap accessible
5 p.m.-midnight Thursday, 5 p.m.-1 a.m. Friday-Saturday, 5 p.m.-11 p.m. Sunday
Entrées $24-$49

A restaurant serving "farm-to-table dishes with Thai and Indian influences" — I wondered which (tired) décor tropes would win out, or would it be a mix? Maybe teak elephants and statues of Ganesha? Wooden kitchen tables to gesture to the farm?

As it happened, the answer was none of the above. Alchemi is decorated in a tasteful modern American style; a big painting of a kitchen staff in swift motion, by Lisa Littell, dominates one wall, and her paintings are hung throughout. Alchemy is an ancient proto-science best known for seeking to turn base metals into gold. (Kind of like cryptocurrency.) Given that the space used to be Mr. B's Gastropub, I'd say the name is apt.

A dramatic presentation of chef-owner Johnny Prepolec's "grow local" philosophy is a garden of lettuce, basil, rosemary, and mint in the restaurant's front window, lit with two 2000-watt grow lights that turn the plants eerily white as they wave gently in the breeze.

The short menu is more eclectic than ethnic. There's dal, chicken tikka, and salmon in a Thai sauce, but also a mostly Italian charcuterie plate, a New York strip ($49), and Michigan lamb ragu. It's all pricey but good. On one visit service was notably slow and on another notably quick, perhaps reflecting the vagaries of the market for staff these days.

My head-and-shoulders favorite dish was chu chee salmon, served in a pool of red curry coconut sauce. The fish was buttery-rich and rubbed with coriander and peppercorns, served with green apple slaw and rice — I wish there'd been more to absorb all the sauce. I asked Prepolec, who emerged often from the kitchen, his secret and he said, "We buy good salmon" (from Fortune Fish).

The lamb ragu was also richly sublime, over house-made pappardelle with pine nuts and served with an orange marigold on top. Chicken tikka was standard, not spicy, again with lots of sauce. The Basmati rice was fine but even better was the crisp, flaky, buttery paratha flatbread.

Two solid dishes meant as appetizers to share would have been sufficient as entrées, if you didn't mind not having any side stuff: Meaty Thai street ribs could be cut with a dinner knife, in a sweet sauce with noticeable cilantro. Burnt ends of brisket carried a subtle barbecue sauce.

My only disappointment was a lobster and shrimp pad Thai, which was heavy, gloppy, and all one sour-spicy flavor, not the melange of light textures and tastes that pad Thai should be. I've watched restaurant Thai food get heavier over the decades, apparently in response to American tastes. No! Go back! Think like the Vietnamese.

An example of how to mix disparate flavors and textures was an appetizer of sweet dates stuffed with tart chevre and combined with the vehement umami of bacon, served in a dark balsamic syrup. This was a "teasing thought" clearly meant to be shared, six king-size dates served in a miniature china egg carton.

Spicy-peanut chocolate truffles also came six to the order; the whole idea of a truffle is that it's so concentrated you only need one, and these were indeed that sumptuous. A big serving of New York-style blueberry cheesecake with a touch of lemon was classic, fluffy and plenty for two sharers.

The wine list is heavy on Chardonnays, eight of them, with reds mostly from California. I had to forego Alchemi's cocktails for a couple of reasons, but reader, I wish I had seen the Johnny Appleseed. It's brought in a flowerpot with "dirt" made of crumbled Oreos. A straw with a rose in it leads below ground to a glass containing apple-infused vodka, yellow Chartreuse and more.

All the $17 cocktails are elaborate and Prepolec promises other dramatic presentations. There's a ginger Kombucha mule and odd ingredients like beet-infused tequila, along with more familiar ones. Prepolec stocks 600 labels of spirits, one of the largest collections in the area, he believes.

He says he wants to pay attention to and enhance the whole cocktail experience: "I use high-quality glasses," he notes. "When you drink a cocktail it's the visual impact, the feel of the glass in your hand, the temperature of the ingredients, the degree of dilution... I want to bring the whole package."

"Don't forget the alcohol," I said.

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About The Author

Jane Slaughter

When she's not reviewing restaurants, Jane Slaughter also writes about labor affairs, having co-founding the labor magazine Labor Notes. Her writing has also appeared in The Nation, The Progressive, Monthly Review, and In These Times.
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