Restaurant Review: Wild Orchid gains space, loses ambience

Transplanting the Annapolis bistro to a bigger location comes at the expense of its homey feel

  • Wild Orchid serves a beef tenderloin with sauteed rainbow chard, potato puree and white truffle bernaise.
Wild Orchid serves a beef tenderloin with sauteed rainbow chard,… (Barbara Haddock Taylor,…)
December 11, 2010|By Richard Gorelick, The Baltimore Sun

I never made it to the Wild Orchid's original home, a free-standing white bungalow in the cozy Eastport neighborhood of Annapolis, but by most accounts, the setup there was charming and intimate. The homey atmosphere was apparently one of the reasons folks recommended Jim and Karen Wilder's upscale American bistro, and in 16 years, the Wild Orchid developed a quiet but sizable following.

Jump to this past summer, when the Wilders moved their operations to the Severn Bank Building on Westgate Circle into a space where a Greystone Grill had come and gone. Various sources put this building in Westgate, the West Street corridor, or even downtown. The city is developing this neighborhood into an arts district, but it's not there yet. When news first broke about this move, at least a few of the restaurant's fans were worried. Would the increased size (almost double, with room for private events and catering) be worth the risk?

I think those concerns were well-placed, because the atmosphere of the new Wild Orchid is not doing the restaurant any favors. To my eye, the new Wild Orchid not only isn't charming but is actually unattractive. The entry-area wine vaults and the stone columns, along with some unlovely furnishings, appear to be holdovers from the Greystone Grill. I'm not sure about the room's most distinctive feature — the zigzag row of banquettes and platforms that diagonally divides the room to odd effect: Because it has better dimensions and natural light, the left half of the room is much nicer than the right half.

It took a long time for us to warm up to the Wild Orchid. (It took us a long time to warm up, period. I seldom feel cold in restaurants, but I did here.) That we eventually did come around, at least partway, is to the credit of Jim Wilder's cooking, which shone through in the second act, with a few impressive entrees. There's a duck dish here that you'd be happy to have anywhere. It involves rosy slices of crispy-skinned duck, a puree of mellow goat cheese, a dreamy red-wine caramel sauce and, to great effect, a scattering of roasted grapes.

I was impressed, too, with Wilder's conception of a pan-seared rockfish entree, which made great use of a buttery roasted cauliflower mash, a fine bacon beurre blanc, and a horseradish-and-herb crusted rockfish. Like the duck, this was a perfect autumn dish, only I thought the fillet itself was too thick for perfect pan-frying.

A third entrée, a beef tenderloin with rainbow chard and potato puree and a white-truffle bearnaise, was not exactly disappointing, but it wasn't the kind of thing you'd look forward to ordering again. What's important, I think, is the kind of simple bistro food that would have gone over well in the old Wild Orchid, which is also what I thought about our trio of appetizers.

Grilled oysters with bacon-horseradish beurre blanc were the best of the three, uplifting, savory, and appealing on the plate. Poutine fries, which are flat-out decadent at Jack's Bistro in Canton, are tentative here, replacing the traditional cheese curds with melted cheddar. What you're left with, basically, is a plate of cheesy fries with the trite additions of white truffle oil and a garlic demi-glace

A Chesapeake mezzo plate featured a few perfectly agreeable items — a creamy white-bean hummus, a bubbly spinach fondue and a wonderful smoked bluefish pate. The accompaniments were carrots, celery and flatbread crackers, the kind they sell at gourmet stores. I don't think I would have minded so much in the old place; here, though, it was a subtraction, as was serving maple butter with the bread — cute for brunch, weird for dinner

There is small dessert menu at the Wild Orchid, but not much reason to linger for it. The pumpkin cake we tried was moist and tasty but not exciting.

On other matters, I appreciated our waiter's tableside manner, and the way he answered our questions. My friends noted the wine list's thoughtful descriptions, but I found its graphic design confusing. Similarly, we missed a fabulous-sounding duck pasta because it was listed in an easy-to-miss "Vegetarian and Pasta" section on the back page.

I truly believe that the food we tried on our visit would have appealed to us more in a bistro setting. I think diners are prepared to be delighted and forgiving in a setting that feels like someone's home. When a setting feels corporate, as the new one does, I think diners begin to evaluate the meal as a transaction.

I will only add that the other diners looked to be considerably happier and more comfortable than I was. They looked to us like regulars, possibly folks who had followed the Wilders from their old place; our very nice waiter told us he had been with the Wilders for years. That's a good sign. The Wild Orchid could revive a bit as the neighborhood gains some vibrancy. I hope so.

Get more information about the Wild Orchid

The Wild Orchid

Where: 200 Westgate Circle, Annapolis

Contact: 410-268-8009,

Hours: Open for lunch, dinner, and for Sunday brunch

Prices: Appetizers, $9-$12 Entrees, $28-$36

Food: ✭✭1/2

Service: ✭✭1/2

Atmosphere: ✭✭

[Key: Outstanding: ✭✭✭✭; Good:✭✭✭; Fair or Uneven:✭✭; Poor:✭]

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