In recent months, I've come across several different restaurants' renditions of English sticky toffee pudding — each one better than the one before it. It's a tasty sign of the rise of the gastropub in New York. The crowded Spotted Pig, whose chef, April Bloomfield, was recently named a Best New Chef by Food & Wine magazine, helped to import the British idea of dining in a pub-like setting with an unexpected emphasis on good, inventive food. Now the Spotted Pig has been joined by a panoply of other gastropubs, many offering the iconic aforementioned dessert.
The best of the puddings I tasted had been at Alchemy, a small tavern in northern Park Slope. Recently, however, the eatery changed chefs, and now, under the direction of Aquavit alumnus Paul Nanni, the toffee pudding isn't quite so good. Spiked with Guinness and slathered in sugary toffee sauce, it was too dry and cakey one night, and, as if to compensate, undercooked and runny another. Fortunately the rest of the menu is excellent, a neat mix of heartiness and subtle flavors that epitomizes gastropub fare. A meal at Alchemy starts with a far-above-average bar snack, salty fried chick peas with a smooth, compelling crunch, and improves from there. The late summer is captured in a scallop tartare with watermelon ($10), and mitigated by a cool, thick potato soup ($7), as creamy and smooth as a dessert, but refreshing, and with a deep, complex flavor. It's swirled with luminous green parsley oil, and dotted with a few whole snails that add the vibrant taste of garlic. An unctuous square of lamb belly ($9) has a thrilling smoky savor, complemented by mint-spiked sour cream that does nothing to alleviate the richness. Mr. Nanni demonstrates a particular knack with seafood. A single whole grilled sardine ($9) has great, pure flavor, piqued with a bed of tangy, spicy escarole and nutty cilantro pesto.
Main courses include some standards, such as fish and chips ($16), and a burger ($12) served on puffy onion brioche, with such optional toppings as Roquefort and pancetta. The Alchemy version of fish and chips is a paperback-book-size slab of flaky skate, jacketed in rigid batter and giving the pub standard a charming textural flair. The chips are excellent skin-on salty ones, lots of them, fried to a crisp.
A delicate piece of cod ($23) arrives moist and almost rare inside its shell of crunchy bacon, a tasty textural contrast. Thickly puréed summer squash perked up with fresh mint makes a refreshing backdrop for the fish. The pea purée that fills a substantial helping of ravioli ($15) has a similar freshness, accented by a mild, buttery broth and a tart scoop of ricotta on the side. Hanger steak ($22) comes pre-sliced, a curiosity since Alchemy is neither a fine-dining establishment nor a household with small children. Still, the meat is good, and the side of Cajun-seasoned green beans is superb. The crisp skin on the roast chicken ($17) is another treat worth the trip to Park Slope. The bird is juicy, its au poivre sauce rich, and the mashed potatoes beneath it do everything mashed potatoes should. Tender, flavorful rabbit from Mayberry Farms fills a deep, classical pot pie ($18), capped with a caraway-studded, buttery puff of pastry.
In addition to the toffee pudding, the pub makes its own sorbets and ice creams, in flavors such as grapefruit and basil; a very tart rhubarb crisp, and a wonderful sweet corn flan (all $8).
The "gastro" part of the gastropub formula is well in hand, and so is the pub part. Cocktails are made well, from fresh ingredients (although the fresh rosemary in the Gin Smith gives it the invigorating essence of bath salts), and there are eight beers on tap, including Whitbread Ale, a nutty, complex English pale ale that's been around for 250 years.
As the seasons change, it will be a pleasure to see what direction Alchemy takes.
Alchemy (56 Fifth Ave., between Bergen Street and St. Mark's Place, Brooklyn, 718-636-4385).