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Alchemy at Winchester Inn

After 30 years, the restaurant inside Ashland's Winchester Inn has a new identity.

"Alchemy" is the concept, explained in exceedingly esoteric fashion on the pages of the new website www.alchemyashland.com. Diners will encounter a certain edginess at the fine-dining establishment known for award-winning wine service — or so the site suggests.

A visit to Alchemy, at 35 S. Second St., reveals that all the inn's genteel, Victorianesque ambiance remains intact. It would appear owners are hedging their bets by giving portions of the meal a makeover, rather than remodeling the dining room, itself.

The restaurant's new theme is perhaps best represented on its extensive cocktail menu featuring "elixirs" and "tinctures" of such spirits as brandy, gin, whiskey, rum, vodka, tequila, even absinthe from the inn's full bar. The encyclopedic wine list that has earned the inn such acclaim is organized by varietal and origin, including an "endangered species" section of rare or limited-stock bottles. Guests also can make their own flight from a thoughtful assortment of labels — some local — available by the glass.

The variety appealed to our group, which ordered both cocktails and wines as the evening progressed. We also found the selection of first courses tempting enough to order five of the seven.

I was impressed that our often-vegetarian friends were game for the inn's preparation of beef marrow ($10), scooped out of the bone, encased in batter, deep-fried and returned to its original packaging as a plating device. In truth, the presentation was more striking than the flavors, with a few pickles the only counterpoint to several forms of fat.

Better received was the classic combination of seared foie gras, sea scallop and mission fig atop crostini ($18). The liver had a superior texture and mild flavor that matches so well with fruit.

By comparison, the flavors of Dungeness and stone crabs didn't marry quite so harmoniously with roasted artichoke hearts and prosciutto, a dish ($13) for which I had such high hopes. Stuffed endive leaves ($8) conveyed more flavors — earthy beets, savory-salty Stilton and tangy tarragon vinaigrette — in a single bite. The same notes were echoed in my salad of butter lettuce ($8), which I would have enjoyed more had the greens been torn rather than shredded.

I chose as my entree the appetizer of seared sea scallops ($15) with pancetta-turmeric cream and was rewarded with three perfectly cooked bites of shellfish bathed in a sublime, saffron-hued sauce. A Parmesan "chip" added a bit of contrasting crunch.

My friend's butter-poached lobster tail ($29), reposing on sunchoke puree and preserved-lemon risotto with more fried bone marrow, flirted with the limits of decadence. Her husband was less taken with his pancetta-wrapped halibut, standing in that evening for the menu's usual tilapia ($24), which in his estimation was overcooked.

My husband wished a bit more time had been spent cooking his pork chop ($25), although he specified medium-rare doneness at the server's suggestion. He admitted that he really ordered the dish for its crispy, brie macaroni and cheese, a comfort food that's becoming almost ubiquitous on higher-end menus locally.

The comfort of dessert eluded us as we hurried to make a play on time. I would return, however, for the "deconstructed" lemon-meringue pie ($8) with raspberries and huckleberries or the "shortcake" with strawberry-tapioca pearls ($8), both apparently aspiring to the avant-garde.

For traditionalists, there's still creme brulee ($7) — both vanilla and a flavor of the day — as well as a vanilla bean pear tart.

Alchemy opens for dinner at 4 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Call 541-488-1115 or make reservations online.

— Sarah Lemon

Seared sea scallops with pancetta-turmeric cream and garnished with a Parmesan “chip.” - Photo by Sarah Lemon