Former Baltimore Trendsetter No Longer Trendy
This location is closed
The Orchid is another one of those restaurants that appears to survive in spite of nobody you know ever actually eating there. News that The Orchid (729 E. Pratt St.,  837-0080) had recently changed management prompted a visit, my first since the Orchid relocated half a decade ago to Scarlett Place on the border of Little Italy and Inner Harbor East from its original home in Mount Vernon, where it was known as the Purple Orchid. And though its pioneering menu approach can still impress, the restaurant no longer measures up to the city’s best.
The Orchid’s main dining room is formally and generically pretty, with deep-purple accents and occasional Asian-themed decorative touches. The space is gifted with natural light, which compensates for its lonesome-hotel ambiance. A recent visit on a dry summer night was ideal for eating outdoors, where a row of sturdy umbrella-outfitted tables and comfortable chairs offer a restful and pleasant setting, even though you’re not looking out on the harbor. The spindly, ailing potted trees that border the outdoor dining area, we were told, were being coaxed back into good health.
So while the agreeable setting doesn’t quite demand a visit, the food comes very close. Founding chef Richard Wong helped nurture Baltimore’s new era of serious restaurant dining during the Orchid’s mid-1980s infancy. It was the city’s first restaurant to explore the connections between Asian and European cuisines, but it seldom did so by fully fusing them. The cuisines were simply given space to coexist.
Since then newer restaurants have caught up with the Orchid and it has slightly faltered. Wong is gone, and his successor remains a mystery. What feels absent from the Orchid now is the sense of a chef’s personal vision and, consequently, of patrons being invited on a culinary journey. The menu is negotiable—you will find something fine to eat—but it doesn’t intrigue or dazzle. Sprinkled among menu workhorses—veal scaloppine ($27), garlic shrimp served over angel hair pasta ($17), broiled salmon with tomatoes, leeks, and asparagus ($21), and various prime cuts of beef—are more alluring entries such as ahi tuna with mango salsa and roasted sesame seeds ($23), udon noodles with chicken and shrimp ($16), Peking duck in citrus-cassis sauce ($22), and puffed pastry chicken ($20). Even so, the menu feels etched in stone, a relic from the Orchid’s youth.
One major and welcome innovation came with the Orchid’s Scarlett Place move: a sushi bar. We ordered a sushi sampler ($6)—a pretty-in-pink nigiri-only arrangement—and a sashimi sampler ($8), remarkable for the inclusion of two gorgeously fatty slices of expensive toro tuna, an instance of lucky timing; the toro was peaking, and the sushi chef dressed up our sampler with it.
We launched into the menu proper with a single additional appetizer, the Orchid’s successful take on the classic spring roll. The supreme Thai roll ($8.50) comes stuffed with shredded cabbage and uncommonly large shrimp. For dipping, the serving plate is abstractly decorated with interlocking sweet and spicy-mustard sauces.
Two entrées, the grilled half-rack of lamb ($23) and the pan-seared eight-ounce fillet ($32), succeeded simply by letting good meat speak for itself. The lamb was enhanced only by a garlic demi-glace, the beef only by a red wine demi-glace and crushed black peppercorns. Both were elegantly constructed in that kind of architectural presentation that, since it has trickled down to the neighborhood pub, feels less exciting than it once did. Sides of roasted vegetables and garlic mashed potatoes were blameless and perfunctorily considered.
The seafood bounty ($28) is more of a showpiece: fillet of sea bass, green mussels, jumbo shrimp, and butterflied scallops, all firm and fresh tasting, topped off by pretty julienne vegetables and flattered by a tarragon-vinegar lemon butter. The garlic mashed potatoes were a mystery here, but overall the dish’s sheer bountifulness came through with an alluring mix of sweet seafood flavors.
The Orchid’s best qualities—firm technique steeped in classic French cuisine, its Continental reserve—felt more at home in its Mount Vernon townhouse. As more and more restaurants in Baltimore respect the seasons and continuously update their menus, the Orchid has become a hothouse flower—something to gaze upon admirably but that excites little sensuous passion.