I like to say jokingly (sort of jokingly) that going to Edgartown in the summer is like going to another country. It takes a long time to get there, parking can take as long as going through customs, and when you finally do get out and walk around, the people look really different — they wear different national colors (a lot of pink and green), wear a lot of national logos (whales), and don’t sport many tribal tattoos on their naked shoulders, as many do in my native land (Oak Bluffs).
Not that I never go in summer. I’ve darted in for concerts or other Old Whaling Church events, and I’ve dropped my daughter off at the bakery she works at (at 5 in the morning. No traffic, no whale-clad natives).
But to go just for the heck of it on a Saturday night in summer? I try to wait for the off-season, which is when I usually visit Alchemy, one of my favorite Island restaurants now, and for the entire 20 years it’s been there.
I mentioned one day at an editorial meeting that I’d happily write something about Alchemy, to which the editor of this section answered, “How about next week?” which had me squarely in season, albeit the homestretch, heading to Alchemy on Labor Day weekend.
I said I’ve loved Alchemy since it’s been there: During one of the stints when I worked for this paper’s competition (at a magazine housed on South Summer Street), I’d often go to Alchemy for lunch or an early supper. I appreciated that it was open in the weird off-season weeks, and always had comfort food. In the years since, I go in the winter and sit at the bar with friends, or upstairs in front of the fireplace, or under twinkling holiday lights in the window on the sidewalk. One year, we had our MV Times holiday party there.
I often ordered the Jonah Crab Salad — a conical-shaped mound of chopped salad, with asparagus, and, of course, crab. It was huge, and I often got another lunch out of it. It had a nice crunchiness to it beyond the greens and the asparagus — a breadcrumb coating that somehow made it more like a meal.
The Jonah Crab Salad has never not been on the menu, at least as far as I’ve seen; it has stayed through myriad changes in chefs and menus, through the recent yearlong transition from the longtime owners Charlotte and Scott Caskey to new owner Todd Dagres (who calls the Caskeys “good leavetakers”).
And so I found myself at Alchemy on Labor Day weekend.
We walked several blocks down School Street. It was that time of night — very early evening, sky still periwinkle, but lights were on in some of the homes, and we could spy life inside beyond the dusky pocket gardens.
At Alchemy, we sat upstairs on the porch. People rode down the center of Main Street on bikes, laughing and shouting to each other. Kids tagged behind parents, dogs walked owners. People waved to each other as if they were old friends.
The world felt full of goodwill. Sitting on that porch brought me back not 20 years to Alchemy’s start, but more like 35, when I first began coming to the Vineyard in the summer. We’d leave the beach, our 20-something skin tight and warm from the sun and sea, and stop in Edgartown (parking was easier then) to have what may have been the Island’s first “frozen mudslides” on the porch at Martha’s, one of the precursors to Alchemy.
Saturday, I ordered a “French Quarter,” lighter and pinker, with vodka and St-Germain.
You’re thinking: After your cocktail, you ordered the Jonah Crab Salad, and it was just the same. Well, no, I didn’t. But the last time I had it (in the spring), it was excellent.
We saw 30 things we wanted, so started with Grey Barn Prufrock Cheese with seasonal jam, candied pecans, and rosemary crackers, strewn with some peppery local arugula; and smoked bluefish pate with grilled rye bread. My companion prefers gluten-free, so they brought him carrots. Both were delicious. All the pieces of the cheese plate together tasted like late summer on the Vineyard: sweet, sharp, grassy, gooey.
We each wanted a couple things and couldn’t decide, so we ordered one of each and went halfsies: I got the filet mignon on whipped potatoes with asparagus, and my friend got the roasted halibut on crab and corn risotto with sun-dried tomatoes. We split a Caesar. Let us pause to consider this Caesar: I love Caesar salads, but don’t love romaine lettuce. This one solved it for me: It was all kale (not chewy kale, not hard-to-swallow kale), and it had croutons (I never eat croutons, but this night I did) soaked in rosemary oil. Neither one of us wanted to surrender our main dishes, which were, well — unsurrenderable — but in the end we were glad we switched and shared. Kind of our own team surf and turf.
A couple days later, I traded emails with Chef Chris Stam. Stam’s family ties on the Vineyard go back to the Mayhews (300-plus years). He’d been working off-Island at some pretty stellar New York restaurants when he heard about the opening at Alchemy this past year. “Knowing the great reputation,” he wrote, “and always having dreamed of being a chef on-Island year-round, it was a no-brainer. I couldn’t be happier with my choice.”
I asked him about the legacy dishes on the menu of a restaurant that’s heading into its third decade, and just in the past year got its second owner when Scott and Charlotte Caskey sold the business to Dagres, a Boston venture capitalist.
“As much as every chef wants to make whole new menus, there are some things that just need to stay,” Stam wrote. “The crab salad is a great example. A great homage to the Caskeys, and Alchemy’s history. I will be keeping a few other items in the mix as well. The filet with mash and asparagus, and the Caesar, will always have a home on the menu.”
Funny that he mentioned the crab salad, the one thing I always order, and two of the things we ordered on Saturday. Our other dish — the halibut, is new this summer, but Stam predicts it will be a new classic. Hoping so, because next time, I’m getting one all for myself.
Alchemy will continue to be open during the off-season, when you can park wherever you want in Edgartown. Dagres says he’d never change that, that he feels “it’s the best way to maintain a great team and stay connected to the community.”
Stam plans to change the menu monthly. “Fall is my favorite time to cook,” he said. “With the changing weather, people tend to go for slightly richer fare. One new item this week is our Berkshire pork chop with creamy cheddar polenta, and a bacon apple compote. In the winter I would like to do some more dishes from my past. Perhaps some throwbacks to the spice market days, and some special Thai curries.”
We’ll be back.