A Decade Of Quietly Turning Out Excellent Meals



Orchid, 419 N. Charles St., (410) 837-0080. Open for lunch Tuesdays to Fridays, open for dinner Tuesdays to Sundays. Major credit cards. No-smoking area: yes. Prices: appetizers, $5.95-$6.95; entrees, $13.95-$20.95. HHH When it opened 10 years ago, the Orchid was a restaurant ahead of its time, with its East meets West mix of Chinese and French. What it did, it did very well. But you knew it was never going to pack Baltimoreans in the way a good crab house would, or even a good Cantonese restaurant.

In the years since, Baltimoreans have become more willing to try new things, but the Orchid has never really gotten the respect it deserves. Still, owner/chefs Richard and Henry Wong go quietly along, winning awards and turning out excellent meals for the customers who have discovered their unusual blend of Asian and French ingredients and techniques.

The concepts and preparation of the food have gotten more sophisticated over the years. The Orchid's new menu makes use of other Asian cuisines besides Chinese: Thai influences make an appearance, along with Malaysian and "Singapore style."

But don't let the word sophisticated scare you off. Although the dining room in the Charles Street rowhouse has been spruced up, it's by no means intimidating, in spite of its crystal chandelier and handsome dark woodwork. Piano bar music plays in the background. Pink tablecloths layered on blue keep the room from seeming as formal as white linen would. (And I notice customers dress accordingly. Only the waiters had coats and ties). Inevitably, there are sprays of orchids on the tables.

You'd never guess that this is a part-Asian restaurant except for a Chinese vase or two, a fan here -- and, of course, the menu. The room is pretty, but not at all as elegant as the food.

The Orchid is for those people who can't decide whether thelike puff pastry or Thai curry sauce better. Where else could you start with snails and sauteed wild mushrooms swirled in a dark, winy sauce and then nestled in a cream puff shell while someone else has hot and sour soup?

A classy take on tuna salad combines smoky slices of grilled tuna, Belgian endive and Boston lettuce with miniature melon balls and an Oriental sesame dressing so spicy your toes curl. (I would have liked it even better if the tuna hadn't been cooked to well-done.)

If you feel like soup, you could have a classic hot and sour. The Orchid's version is hotter than most -- definitely not for the fainthearted -- and full of exotic ingredients. Or you could opt for corn bisque with a fish of the day. This day there were beautiful chunks of fresh salmon in the smooth, creamy liquid studded with golden kernels of corn.

The only dish I recognized on the menu from when the restaurant first opened was the fillet of flounder Orchid. Two fresh fillets were dipped in a light, almost nonexistent egg batter, then sauteed and topped with lemon butter sparked with bits of ginger, fresh pineapple slivers and almonds. It's a very pleasant dish, but order it only if you feel like playing safe: There are many more interesting offerings.

Take the five tiny lamb chops, meltingly tender and seared just until pink. The heady Thai curry sauce that pooled beneath them was addictively good, and a bit of fruit chutney softened the fiery spices.

For spicy garlic jumbo shrimp and sea scallops Singapore style, the kitchen stir-fried the seafood with chilies, red and yellow bell pepper, fresh pineapple and tomatoes. The delicate sauce was just faintly sweet and very spicy.

Another stir-fry, chicken breast Malaysian style, had a curried peanut sauce that was nothing short of superb. It set off the tender white chunks of chicken beautifully.

Each plate is elaborately arranged, with a medley of fresh green beans, snow peas, miniature zucchini balls and carrots. Fresh herbs tucked into a carrot "ring" made a pretty garnish. Depending on what you order, you might also have a timbale of rice or tiny roast potatoes.

Don't settle for the pastry tray for dessert. It wasn't until later that I realized we had missed the kinds of desserts that are best after spicy, rich meals. Sorbet with mixed berries and creme de cassis, fresh fruit with ice cream, and creme caramel are on the menu; but our waiter never mentioned them. The tiny glasses of homemade passion fruit sorbet we were brought between courses was so good I would have liked a full-size helping for dessert instead of the tiramisu. The Orchid does Asian and French beautifully, but it hasn't mastered Italian desserts yet.

Next: Jeannier's

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