Nothing's simple at Wild Orchid

Restaurant Review

Food: ** (2 STARS)

Service: *** (3 STARS)

Atmosphere: ** 1/2 (2 1/2 STARS)

November 19, 2006|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

The Wild Orchid calls itself a cafe, but it's a cafe where the duck breast is seared and served with pear chutney, the sirloin is free-range venison, and entrees average $30.

The restaurant, located in an Eastport bungalow, is charmingly casual when it comes to its surroundings, if not its cuisine, with an inviting front porch and a patio where meals are served when the weather is warmer.

The downstairs has been opened up so there's one large dining room that wraps around the kitchen, and a smaller, cozier room to one side.

It's an appealing setup, with cheerful yellow walls and tables set with white linen and flowers - except that there are no rugs, just bare wood floors. When the place is full, it's very, very noisy. (I seem to be saying this a lot these days.)

The Wild Orchid is a restaurant you want to love. It has its own distinct personality at a time when many eating places don't. The staff is attentive and professional. But too often the kitchen doesn't pull off what it seems to be trying to do.

In this setting, you might expect uncomplicated but very fresh and seasonal food, with an emphasis on seafood because the water is so nearby. But that's not what you get. The bread, for instance, was an intensely flavored sun-dried tomato loaf, and it came with a spinach, leek and mushroom spread, not butter or olive oil. That's fine if the tastes weren't competing with a lot of other flavors in the rest of the food. Nothing is as simple here as the word cafe might suggest.

What may be the best oysters on the half shell I've had all year - plump, sweet and briny - were topped with bacon, spicy slaw, and barbecue sauce. That's a lot going on.

The Wild Orchid's signature cream of butternut squash soup was a beautifully delicate creation, not the thick puree you might expect, and gilded with lumps of crab. But it was so peppery that the subtle flavor of the squash didn't come through.

The focus is on main courses, not first courses. There are a couple of soups, only two appetizers (the oysters and a crab and artichoke dip) and four salads.

Of those last, the warm mushroom salad - wild mushrooms sauteed with bacon and placed on a bed of spring mix, with a vinaigrette and shaved Parmesan cheese - is the one that demands respect.

Restaurant prices in general seem more expensive to me in the Annapolis area than around Baltimore, but $26 for a vegetarian butternut squash lasagna? I don't think so. Still, it's a lovely dish, with pale gold layers of tender pasta, bechamel, squash and cheeses. It's the sort of artfully prepared but rustic dish you expect at the Wild Orchid, but don't get often enough.

A scallop Napoleon didn't work on any level. The foundation of the stack, pecan-lemon pancakes, tasted heavy and crunchy, as if they had been fried in their nut crust. They were layered with scallops and sauteed leeks and mushrooms, and moistened with a citrusy sauce. The ingredients didn't do much for each other.

Some dishes hit the mark better than others, even if they have a flaw.

The kitchen stuffed twin quail with a cornbread mixture and accompanied them simply - for once - with broccoli. The dainty birds were meaty and succulent; and a bit of the filling, studded with apples and pecans, would be welcome. Instead it was stuffing overload.

Wild Orchid makes its own bread pudding and creme brulee, either of which I would order over the cakes from a good local bakery. There was nothing wrong with the cakes, except they had been in the fridge too long.

What makes the Wild Orchard Cafe worth knowing about is the prix fixe for $39.

With this you get the house salad, which has poached pears, Gorgonzola and almonds with the greens, soup, a dessert and any of the entrees or specials. That's pretty surprising when you consider that the special that evening, a seafood cioppino, cost $39 a la carte.

Add to that a decent and reasonable bistro wine list, and a setting that feels more like someone's home than a restaurant, and you have more reasons than not to give the Wild Orchard a try.

elizabeth.large@baltsun.com

Podcasts of Elizabeth Large's reviews can be found at baltimoresun.com/large.

Wild Orchid Cafe

Address: 909 Bay Ridge Ave., Eastport

Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner; Sunday brunch.

Prices: Appetizers, $5-$9; entrees, $26-$38

Call: 410-268-8009

[Outstanding: *** (4 STARS) Good: *** ( 3 STARS) Fair or uneven:

** (2 STARS) Poor: * (1 STAR)

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