Our host leads us to our table — set for two-and-a-half — at Alchemy Restaurant and Bar. The area is partially partitioned from the main dining room by a pony wall and column, perhaps the perfect place to seat a tired couple and their potentially fussy 9-month-old baby.
The waiter greets us cordially with a brand-new highchair. This is Alchemy’s only highchair, as if to send a message to other restaurant goers that one baby is enough. He gives our son, Niko, the same respect he would grant a diner of any age and asks him his name. “Duh-duh-dah,” Niko responds.
Taking a baby out to a nice restaurant is not an ideal situation, but if you enjoy restaurants and you have a baby, but not a babysitter, it’s something that ends up happening. Our one goal for the night is to make sure we don’t ruin everyone else’s meal.
We begin pulling out toys and treats with which to entertain Niko while we decide what to eat. For our first course, Danielle and I split an order of Pancetta Asparagus, and Niko will have the travel container of puffs (enigmatic carbohydrates mass manufactured by a baby-food company). At this point, Niko has been awake for two hours — still 60 minutes or so to go before the witching hour begins.
The starter arrives with house-made pancetta and king trumpet mushrooms lying atop a bed of asparagus immersed in a fresh asparagus coulis and surrounded by a bright emulsion of Parmesan and egg. The pancetta acts as the salt of the dish, with a crisp exterior that surrounds a juicy, fatty interior. This texture is mirrored by the fleshy mushrooms and the crunchy, yet tender asparagus.
Our baby tries some asparagus and cheesy egg stuff but prefers the complimentary bread. We break apart pieces of warm baguette with herbed butter for the baby connoisseur, who, like a jeweler inspecting diamonds with a loupe, picks up each piece to carefully examine before finally settling on the right one.
For our second course, we split a Bacon and Egg Salad. Unfortunately, Alchemy does not have a kids’ menu, but the waiter does a little brainstorming and brings us a plate of hand-made noodles with Parmesan.
The noodles are not aerodynamic but have the proper weight at their ends for Niko to swing them around in the air like chain whips. The butter that coats them, however, makes it easy for these weapons to slip out of his hands and onto the floor. Our waiter is so thoughtful as to come by at regular intervals and pick up the mess, despite our insistence that we will do it.
Danielle is showing Niko flashcards picked up from the Dollar Tree when dinner arrives. I’ve ordered the duck and Danielle the flank steak. At this point, a food drunk Niko has been staring at another couple for about 10 minutes, giving us much more time to enjoy our entrees.
My dish is a modern take on duck à l’orange, swapping out the bitter orange sauce with a carpano antica and cherry reduction with kumquats. Cooked closer to the rare side, the duck is delicious. The walnuts and king trumpet mushrooms add an earthy tone that I’m beginning to associate with the Pacific Northwest.
The glazed flank steak has a smoky flavor, as do its backup singers, the sunchokes and pears. While the skin of the sunchokes have the texture of a baked potato, the taste is sweeter. I don’t know what they did to the pears to make them sing so lusciously.
I realize that Niko has been up for three hours. The witching hour is nearly here, and our waiter can sense our urgency. He quickly takes our dessert orders and returns with plates of the Brown Butter Tart and the A-Maize-Ing Cake.
The latter dish is made up of fresh corn cake, a dense and chewy vehicle for the mixed berry puree, ricotta ice cream and caramel sauce. The tart tastes like the world’s most perfect slice of pie: flaky, brown-butter shortbread crust and custard, with seasonal fruit and topped with vanilla bean ice cream.
We try to get Niko to hang in there by offering him bites of typically forbidden ice cream while our waiter rushes the check to us and back again. On a scale of 1 to 10, he says Niko has been a perfect 9.7. We realize that our little angel actually has been a little angel tonight. This not an invitation to bring your baby to out to a fancy restaurant, but if your babysitter fails to follow through, you might just have a great date night like we did.
Alchemy Restaurant and Bar is at 35 S. Second St., Ashland, inside Winchester Inn. Restaurant hours are 5 to 8:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 5 to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday. The bar is open from 4 to 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 4 to midnight Friday and Saturday. For reservations, call 541-488-1115, see www.alchemyashland.com or email email@example.com.