Orchid re-blooms

seafood's a specialty

Palate

December 18, 2005|By ELIZABETH LARGE | ELIZABETH LARGE,SUN RESTAURANT CRITIC

When people talk about restaurants that are Baltimore institutions, they never mention the Orchid, which opened in Mount Vernon in 1984 and moved to the Inner Harbor five years ago.

Then owner-chef Richard Wong introduced global fusion to the city long before it became trendy to mix ingredients and techniques from different cuisine, with dishes like escalope de veau tofu, coquille St. Jacques with satay sauce and Chinese crispy duck au poivre vert. I suppose the Orchid was a little too forward-looking for its time, but somewhere along the way time passed it by. Now the restaurant has a sort of retro feel to it.

There is a new owner, a handsome new decor and a new name. The Orchid, which became the Purple Orchid in the mid-90s to avoid confusion with Orchard Market and Cafe, is now the Orchid again -- the Orchid Sushi, Raw Bar and Grill. Is it churlish to mention that -- at the moment, anyway -- there are no raw bar offerings? (There is a good selection of sushi, though.)

Gone, too, is Wong's rococo cooking style: the elaborate creations and over-the-top presentations that also wowed the tongue. There's not tremendous excitement on the plates these days, although most of the by-the-book food tastes fine.

What the new Orchid does have is free parking in the covered Pier V garage on Pratt Street. That's huge.

The food is much more Pan-Asian than it was in Wong's time, but these days a Baltimore menu that has Thai and Japanese accents and a crab cake for the tourists is pretty much standard new American.

Some of the dishes soar, like a decadent mushroom soup with melted brie cheese threaded through it. Others the kitchen phones in. I'm thinking of a vegetable tempura appetizer that was a little too greasy. The dessert tray is somewhat perfunctory as well, three little cylinders that come in molten-centered chocolate, key lime or turtle cheesecake.

Most of the food, though, falls somewhere in the middle. The huge Thai spring roll, fat with Chinese cabbage and shrimp, is cut and arranged decoratively on sweet-sour and mustard sauces patterned on the plate like dessert sauces. A portobello mushroom topped with crab and parmesan cheese is agreeable and prettier than it has any right to be.

The Orchid is in winter mode now -- the restaurant has cut back its hours, for instance. That may also be why neither the prime rib nor the New York strip was available the night we were there. If you want meat, there is veal scaloppini, but it wouldn't be my first choice, mostly because the juxtaposition of veal, raisins, wine and cream is difficult to pull off. Still, the kitchen does its best, and it's not a bad dish.

But there is plenty to like on the seafood side of the menu. The catch of the day -- flaky, mild tilapia in lemon butter -- came with a 4-ounce crab cake, a bit mushy but with nicely seasoned, big lumps of crab.

The old Orchid's signature dish, flounder in an egg batter crust with lemon butter, almonds, crystallized ginger and pineapple, is still on the menu. It would be better with fresh pineapple. The handsome Seafood Bounty seems more up-to-date, with shrimp, sea bass, mussels and scallops, beautifully prepared and artfully laid on a bed of mashed potatoes. (The potatoes are an offbeat choice with seafood; but with the nicely cooked julienne vegetables, they are a staple on most of the plates).

The new Orchid is the place I would recommend to people who are looking for a quiet restaurant in the Inner Harbor. If you want excitement on your plate, then I would choose somewhere else. Sometimes, though, you just want to have a decent meal and a setting that's comfortable. Free parking is good, too. That's when you should remember the Orchid.

elizabeth.large@baltsun.com

FOOD -- ** 1 / 2 (2 STARS)

SERVICE -- *** 9 3 STARS)

ARMOSPHERE -- *** ( 3 STARS)

ORCHID SUSHI, RAW BAR & GRILL

Address: 729 E. Pratt St., Inner Harbor

Hours: Open for dinner Monday through Saturday

Prices: Appetizers: $4.50-$12.95; entrees: $16-$29

Call: 410-837-0080

RATINGS: Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *

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