If medieval alchemy was the fruitless pursuit of turning lead into gold, maybe the quest in postmodern alchemy should be something more realistic. Something, for example, like turning a grilled cheese sandwich into something gourmet.
And if we adopt this philosophy, it's time to hand the Nobel over to the new Atwood Avenue bistro of the same pseudoscientific name, because its stuffed grilled cheese is positively priceless.
There are few things I like better in the world than a) summer nights in Madison and b) getting lots of attention, so you can imagine how delighted I was to pedal over to Alchemy Café on a recent balmy evening for a special father/daughter night out with Papa Bear Franson. After escaping the torrent of mosquitoes by the bike rack (how people were sipping their beers outside is still beyond me), we were greeted on a first-name basis by Michael Randall, a bearded, sweet-faced twentysomething who is one-third of the restaurant's ownership.
We chose a table in the corner in the hopes of blocking out some of the live jazz band's cosmic amplification. Which leads me to my first and only critique of the Alchemy experience: The music was too damn loud too damn early. Granted, this makes me sound much older and thornier than my 24 years. But I have a theory that people should be allowed to make dinner conversation at a restaurant if they eat before 10 p.m. After 10, the boozing crowd can hold court. But seriously - at 9?! I don't want to have to shout to get my Arnold Palmer refilled, for Pete's sake. Maybe they could make a rule that amps can only be turned on after the dinner crowd. Or maybe, if it's jazz or bluegrass music being played, they could just nix the amps altogether.
Anyhow, I'm digressing. The good news is that music at Alchemy is always free (a rarity these days), and that in my case, the band took a break shortly after I got there, giving me time to bandage my inner ear and survey the interior esthetics. The owners clearly borrowed some ideas from the Weary Traveler, from the dark wood tables to the wait staff itself (I had just seen the women who served me at the Weary three nights before). A flat-panel television was mounted by the bar, where neighborhood dudes of all ages sat contentedly sipping their beers while a nice hum of conversation filled the room.
With Dad's onion rings and stuffed grilled cheese and my meaty portabella sandwich with potato salad, there was a lot of food to take in (and by "take in" I mean "inhale"). Though he was warned he wouldn't be able to finish them, Dad single-handedly killed off the entire plate of the sweet onion rings that are, as everything else is on the menu, made entirely from scratch. I gobbled up half of his grilled cheese after trading him for my overly sauced potato salad and tucked in every last bite of my portabella sandwich, too. I laid off the alcohol that night, but Dad thoroughly enjoyed the Ale Asylum beers on tap.
We were both too stuffed to try any dessert, so we sat back for a bit while the jazz band picked up their instruments for another set. At the risk of emasculating the owners and all the guys who watch baseball there, I have to say that Alchemy is a really sweet place - a delicious, friendly and sweet place that is poised to be the kind of mecca for the Atwood neighborhood that the Weary is for the Willy Street neighborhood. I'll raise my Arnold Palmer and cheers to that any day.
Big hairy deal
"Delicious" and "sweet" are not exactly the first words that come to mind when describing the Blues salon, an east-side staple that recently celebrated its five-year anniversary at the Orpheum.
The trendy salon - known for its big hair and even bigger personalities - filled the Orpheum with DJs, booze and 200 red velvet cupcakes, of which I ate approximately 125. Every member of the Blues staff - Marie, Stan, Robin, Christina and Ryan - was dressed to the nines, and at least two had new hair colors.
See, that's the problem with partying among stylists. My unwashed hair that I hurriedly threw up with bobby pins had less of the "beach babe" vibe that I was aiming for and more of the "ow, it hurts to look at it" vibe. My pal Caitlyn's new boyfriend, who has hair past his shoulders, told me that he was hiding in fear for his scalp's safety.
In the end, though, none of that mattered. Everyone was nice (at least to our face), and the combination of sugar and alcohol had everyone flying high. A mysterious and uninvited trio of crazily dancing boys got the party moving with a chair-dancing spectacle - the likes of which will probably never be seen again, because I'm guessing two of them woke up the next day with some serious back injuries.
The Blues gang plans on having more parties every few months or so (the one prior to the birthday gathering had Marie jumping out from a giant cake), including rumors of a salon slumber party. Stop in to its Willy Street location for a bang trim, and stay tuned.
I decided to check out Jade Monkey this month after hearing buzz from various sources - a fun-loving older woman from my former temp job as well as some quintessentially hip roller derby girls. I figured any place that caters to both the bowling crowd and the bowl-'em-over crowd can't be a bad spot, and I'm always up for touting locales on my dear east side.
The Jade Monkey's location at the intersection of Cottage Grove and Monona Drive, in the place of the now-defunct Hammertime, is both a blessing and a curse for this isthmus-dweller. On the one hand, it's quickly become a neighborhood staple; on the other hand, for non-neighborhood dwellers, a trip requires either a car or a bravely tipsy bike ride home. The question remains, then, if it is a place, like Alchemy, that's worth schlepping to or simply a corner pub.
Anyone who's been there knows it's not merely a Wisco-style watering hole. With fish tanks, nice upholstery and a trendily backlit bar, the Jade touts itself on its website as "the Midwest's first Asian-infused Retro Lounge." Big shoes to fill, especially for a place that still keeps an old dartboard on the back wall. Which, may I add, is a good thing. Yet because I visited the website before I visited the building, I had expected an East Village-style schmoozing den. What I got on a recent Thursday night was an adult softball league celebration and Johnny Cash playing on the jukebox.
Now, don't get me wrong. I'm a born and bred Midwesterner who likes darts and local brews as much as the rest of you. I was just caught off guard when, in a cotton minidress and low heels, I was garishly overdressed, and my companion and I were the only ones drinking out of martini glasses. What can I say? I hear the words "Asian-infused" and "lounge" and my inner sophisticate gets a little excited. I should have known that the east side would have no patience for an overly stylized joint, and once I surrendered my expectations for a big-city bar, I had a great time - even breaking a toy monkey prop with a few of the softball guys.
What the Jade Monkey does, it does well - providing a hub for neighborhood friends to eat, drink and be merry. There's really no need for it to be anything else.
New in town
With a year of great business under its belt, the Jade Monkey has a leg up on the Frequency, a new music venue just off of the Capitol Square. I snuck into the premiere show that featured the Treats (whom I love) and Awesome Car Funmaker (whom I loathe). The place was so new that I got completely high - not off of the vaguely priced drinks or the music, but the fresh paint fumes emanating from the red walls. With no credit card machine or printed drink list, the place was obviously still finding its feet; owner Darwin Sampson was more keen on getting the doors open than working out all the kinks beforehand. With great sound and a great location, there's little doubt the Frequency will make some waves during these hot summer nights in Mad Town.