Restaurant Review: The Alchemist


By - Thursday 3rd October, 2013

Stephen Black uncovers a local restaurant that’s friendly to coeliacs, vegans, and your wallet


The Alchemist, 273 Morland Road, CR0 6HE, tel. 07564 036977
Time from East Croydon:   11 minutes 

Image from South Norwood Tourist Board

Is the key to a good dinner the connection between base and superstructure? Does the economic relationship of the workers to the enterprise determine the quality of the outcome?

It was a friend’s birthday. All she’d told us about the venue was that we were going somewhere that was ‘like someone’s front room’ and the lobster had been ‘divine’. This was The Alchemist.

The Alchemist is a friendly, unpretentious establishment that serves friendly, unpretentious food, ‘6pm till very late’ every day, with breakfast and lunch available at weekends. It has the spirit of a pop-up business, though in conversation I learned this part-charity, part-co-operative social enterprise has a seven-year lease on its premises in Morland Road: so they are there for the medium term, if not the long.

I’d quickly noted the warmth of the welcome (warm, but never intrusive) before I’d learned that everyone working there had a stake in the enterprise.

Outside there’s a sofa, chairs and table; inside there are simple tables and chairs, and rugs and pictures on the walls. Throughout there’s an improvised air which I found incredibly appealing. The Savoy Grill it ain’t; which is just as well, as Richard Harris is said to have made his final earthly journey on a stretcher past the Savoy Grill, bellowing ‘it was the food’ at the diners.

Coeliacs and vegans in our number were admirably catered-for

Food started with good quality olives and robust bread, augmented by delicious home-made (an epithet which could’ve been applied to almost everything served) relishes. Then ‘Arabian crudités’ arrived, followed by dishes of chicken and crustacean couscous. The seafood was particularly satisfying, but it was all tasty, social eating.

I’m a simple soul and believe that one indicator to the quality of a kitchen is the quality of its staples. Indifferent meals have been saved for me by fine bread, potatoes, rice, pasta, and so on. Although in this meal nothing was indifferent, I can report that the couscous was cooked to fluffy perfection.

Our party was discriminating and varied; but coeliacs and vegans in our number were admirably catered-for with oil- and gluten-free vegan dishes of hummus, pitta bread, okra, artichokes and spinach, gherkins and olives, peppers, corn crisp bread, salad, two different bean salads, a salad with bean stew, brown rice with the tomato-based dishes with aubergines, carrots, olives. All ‘beautiful’.

Dessert was home-made Egyptian ice cream, and followed by a fine section of fresh fruit, simply cut and served on ice. A delicious end to a memorable dinner. The remains of the pomegranates, peaches, apples, grapes et al were boxed-up, wrapped and distributed to us in case we felt peckish on the way home.

The Alchemist is a very strong argument for co-operatives, if not the full collectivisation of the restaurant sector

I left with my wallet a mere £20 lighter. It’s a BYOB venue (with a number of off-licences nearby), which means a real treat on a budget is not hard to manage. I should add that the feast we enjoyed was a bespoke menu for the birthday group; but looking at the menu, one need not spend a lot of money on the daily-changing menu, drawn from their ‘1000 dish repertoire’.

This is a straightforward, ‘what-you-see-is-what-you-get’ place – no cover or service charges; all food well-sourced, well-prepared and deliciously cooked, and served with a generous, light touch that is unusual anywhere. At no point were we made to feel rushed – even at the end of a long evening. I felt a touch guilty as I scampered off to get the 0016 tram, leaving several of our number to enjoy their BYOBs.

The Alchemist deserves to do very well for its co-operators: locals from Addiscombe and Woodside should make it their own, and those from further afield can arrive on the 312, 197 or 130 buses, or the tram to Blackhorse Lane and the short walk. It serves ‘snacks and nibbles’ to ‘casual munchers’, though ‘serious diners’ are advised to book.

To return to my opening questions, if Marx is right to say that an economic system determines outcomes, The Alchemist is a very strong argument for co-operatives, if not the full collectivisation of the restaurant sector.

Stephen Black

Stephen Black

Stephen arrived in Croydon from Nottingham, via Portsmouth, Leeds and north London. He’s taught English in secondary schools since 1990, after enjoying five years in the central London book trade during which he glimpsed the last throes of a Golden Age and shared a very small lift with Michael Foot (having joined the Labour Party under his predecessor) where they discussed Maynard Mack’s biography of Alexander Pope.

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  • Anne Giles

    I’ll have to try it.

  • Anne Giles

    It doesn’t mention anything about parking. I don’t use public transport. Also – gluten free is not the same as vegan. I can’t wheat, but hate vegan food. Meat doesn’t have wheat in it, does it? I can’t eat rice, brown or white, sweetcorn, tomatoes, dairy from cows. Do they serve any Argentine wine?

    • Stephen Black

      Thanks for taking the trouble to read my piece, Anne. From my one-off experience of The Alchemist, I’m certain they will be able to cater for your dietary needs. As I say in the review, we were a pretty varied and demanding group, and we all left very satisfied. I think you should ring first and discuss your individual needs.

      The Alchemist is a BYOB (bring-your-own-bottle) establishment, so you could take whatever you wished to drink. There is street parking in the immediate area, though the restaurant does not have a car park.

      Finally, I’ve taken the comment about your political position in the same spirit as I made the remark about collectivising the whole of the restaurant sector! If I’m wrong to do so, I can reassure you that none of my party were asked to produce socialist or co-operative credentials before placing an order. Nor were we required to sing The Red Flag, The Internationale or anything by Billy Bragg!

      Having said that, I do believe the fact that everyone at The Alchemist is not a mere employee is reflected in the care they seem to put into the food and service I enjoyed the night I was there. I shall return soon with a different group of friends to test out the day-to-day menu.

      • Anne Giles

        Thanks. That’s great. I must try it!

  • Anne Giles

    How will they react when I tell them I am a Tory?

  • Guest

    Thanks for taking the trouble to read my piece, Anne. From my one-off experience of The Alchemist, I’m certain they will be able to cater for your dietary needs. As I say in the review, we were a varied and pretty demanding group, and we all left very satisfied. I’d ring first and discuss your individual needs.

    The Alchemist is BYOB (bring-your-own-bottle), so you could take whatever you wished to drink. There is street parking in the immediate area, though the restaurant does not have a car park.

    Finally, I’ve taken the comment about your political position in the same spirit as I made the remark about collectivising the whole of the restaurant sector! If I’m wrong to do so, I can reassure you that none of my party were asked to produce socialist or co-operative credentials before placing an order. Nor were we required to sing The Red Flag, The Internationale or anything by Billy Bragg.

    Having said that, I do believe the fact that everyone at The Alchemist is not a mere employee is reflected in the care they seem to put into the food and service I enjoyed the night I was there. I shall return soon with a different group of friends to test out the day-to-day menu.

  • Fiona R

    I loved it here! My food was delicious and the people so friendly and such lovely surroundings. I’m heading back tonight for a second try.

    • Stephen Black

      Thanks for your comment, Fiona. It’s good to have confirmation that my impressions were representative. I’m paying it a second visit myself soon. Bon appétit!

  • Andy Ellis

    Tried this out a couple of weeks ago. Had not even sat down when I decided I was going to like the place. Great cosy atmosphere, welcoming, the chef came out to discuss my wife’s diet needs (gluten-free and veggy) and was pleased to oblige – even gluten free bread on hand. I had a Tagine for the first time ever – cooked lovely with meat falling off the bone; wife’s Foulle (bean stew) was good.

    I guess my only complaint is that there should be a warning sign on the weapons-grade Harissa.

    Service neither slow nor hurried. We ate, drank and relaxed.

    As stated, BYOB and several off licences nearby. The one down the road by the PO (I think a Spar) has good range of beers and even organic wine.