Chef Michael Matassa and sommelier Debi Bell-Mattassa have 35 years in the food industry (and 25 years together as husband and wife). They opened their first restaurant, Fusion Grille, in Fallston back in 1989 and ran it for six years. They stoked the culinary fire at Alchemy on the Avenue in Hampden for another six years. Now they’re two years into bringing their unique dining experience back home to Harford County after completely renovating a corner spot at the Bel Air Town Center.
“These are our roots. We just wanted to be back home,” says Michael.
The 140-seat restaurant is the setting for their creative American cuisine with cross-cultural influences and innovative cocktails.
Decor. The Alchemy Elements mark permeates every corner of the space, from the epoxy floor that swirls gray and black, like smoke from fire, to hammered-copper tabletops handmade in Mexico. It’s fused into the metal foot rails at the bar, welded into the labyrinthine bar back, and etched into the windows. Hammered silverware sparkles on the tabletops with thick Murano glass tumblers streaked with color. Local artist Michel Patrick O’Leary created the photographs to capture the elements — fire, earth, water, wind — in cooking. Baltimore upholsterer Mark Dunnegan created the plush booths and bar chairs based on Debi’s designs.
Drink. Have a seat at the Brazilian granite bar and see the alchemist in action making hand-crafted specialty cocktails. Pans of water are smoked over hickory wood and frozen into globes of ice for Smoke on the Water, a concoction with whiskey, mandarin orange liqueur, maple syrup and whiskey barrel bitters. “When it melts, instead of diluting, it imparts flavor,” says Debi, who studied at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley and is the restaurant’s sommelier and drink specialist. They do the same with flavor-infused liqueurs cooked up in a special flask at the bar, and juices and pureed fruit infused into ice. Fresh herbs from the kitchen find their way into creative cocktails — specialty peppers grown locally are used to make chipotle and hot pepper simple syrups. The drink menu also changes with the season, and there’s even a zero-proof Virgin Mary with lump crab and Old Bay on the rim.
Food. Alchemy is the ancient realm of magicians and sorcerers who could turn rock into precious metal. “They used to be locked into castles, forced by kings to take a raw product and make it into gold,” Debi says. “We make raw ingredients into something absolutely special.” The changing menu is based on local ingredients from Harford County farms, including local corn roasted in the husk that is frozen and used all year long. “I love cooking classics, but I want to be inventive and do new things,” says Michael, who trained at Academy of Culinary Arts Atlantic City. He doesn’t just want people to eat his food. He wants them to experience it. “We harmonize flavor, color, scent and texture to create the experience of sensory fusion.” Popular dishes include the “colossal” lump crab cake made with two special secret ingredients that he would absolutely not be reveal. A whole rack of lamb is marinated for three days in molasses, Dijon and garlic, then pecan crusted and roasted. And he can’t take the roasted red snapper with soy marinade and sesame crust off of the menu, as it has proven so popular. A surprising hit has been the Indian Chicken Francaise, the familiar egg-battered poultry sauteed in white wine and scallions but served with curry cashew basmati rice and a curry coconut sauce.
Dessert. A pastry chef, Debi trained the staff to create the in-house sweets — handmade sorbets and ice creams and the jewel: a towering two-layer carrot cake, a family recipe made with pureed cooked carrots and pineapple and tweaked with limoncello frosting with a zing of lemon zest. “Our carrot cake rocks,” she says. “It’s a monstrous piece to share.”
Final Verdict. It’s easy to fall under the spell of Alchemy Elements when local ingredients are fused with an ever-changing menu created to tease all senses.