Hard To Find And Hard To Beat

Restaurant: The Orchard Market & Cafe offers something unusual in this area -- Persian food


The Orchard Market & Cafe is one of those rare examples where location, location, location doesn't have much to do with success.

I defy anyone to find this restaurant easily. I've been there half a dozen times and still usually miss the turn onto Orchard Tree Lane from Joppa Road. (Hint: it's immediately east of that other Orchard restaurant, M. Gettier's Orchard Inn.)

But somehow over the decade that the Orchard Market has been in business, it's built a devoted clientele, who are happy to come to a storefront in a strip shopping mall for Persian dishes like garlic eggplant chicken and aash soup. A storefront without a liquor license, no less.

When it opened in 1990, the Orchard Market was a Middle Eastern market, with a few cafe tables for those who wanted to eat there. But the shelves of exotic ingredients and deli counter have disappeared; more tables, wall hangings and a little fountain have taken their place. It's now a pretty restaurant with an extensive menu of traditional and nouveau Persian dishes.

This is the restaurant that introduced that sublime combination of chicken, pomegranate molasses and ground walnuts called fesenjune to Baltimore. The Orchard Market also makes this classic Persian dish with duck, which I like even better than the chicken. The thick sauce is more tart than sweet and intensely flavorful. The Orchard Market's version is prettily decorated with raisins, currants and a few curls of slivered carrot.

I like the sauces here almost more than the meats. Dried-plum lamb has a fragrant tomato-based sauce with undertones of citrus and pomegranate. It works beautifully with the soft, prunelike dried plums and rounds of butternut squash. The chunks of lamb are very tender, but they seem almost secondary to all the other good flavors.

And then there's the tangy, fresh-tasting yogurt and coriander sauce that goes so well with a thick, moist fillet of salmon. Toasted almonds and grilled tomatoes and onions add even greater interplay of flavors.

With all these artful combinations and seductive tastes, I wouldn't bother with the kebabs at the Orchard Market. Not that there's anything much wrong with the grilled marinated beef or chicken. But by ordering them you're missing dishes you simply can't get elsewhere in Baltimore.

The same advice goes for the appetizers. Of course, the safe thing is to order something traditional like hummus, and it's OK. But you could have shrimp sauteed with onions and a tart mango chutney, or sauteed tomatoes, onions and soft cubes of feta cheese with an intriguing garlic- and saffron-tinged sauce. Aash -- made with lentils, kidney beans and noodles -- is a thick, deeply satisfying soup. So why start with something you can get at any Middle Eastern eatery?

Orchard Market has good salads, although the waiter should have warned us that cantaloupe would be substituted for the pear in the mango-pear salad. Still, the combination of ripe slices of mango and melon with a mix of greens, feta cheese and pomegranate vinaigrette was remarkably refreshing.

Once, the Orchard Market & Cafe had Middle Eastern desserts beyond baklava, such as Turkish delight and rosewater ice cream. But nowadays if you don't want the deliciously sticky sweet baklava, you'll have to settle for rich Western bakery cakes and pastries, like a dacquoise made with meringue and buttercream or a death-by-chocolate cake. Or you could plan to bypass dessert and attempt to finish the mound of basmati rice that traditionally comes with every Persian dinner. I never come close.


Food: ***

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ***

Where: 8815 Orchard Tree Lane

Hours: Open every day for lunch and dinner, brunch on Sunday

Prices: Appetizers, $3.50-$7.95; main courses, $10.95-$15.95

Call: 410-339-7700

Rating system: Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *

Pub Date: 06/06/99

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