Orchids at Palm Court
Go: 35 W. Fifth St., Hilton Netherland Plaza Hotel, Downtown
Hours: 5:30-10 p.m. daily; Sunday brunch: 10:30 a.m.1:30 p.m.
Payment: Major credit cards accepted
Red Meat Alternatives: Seafood
You don't have to be an architectural geek to marvel at the craftsmanship of Orchids at Palm Court. The dining room's Art Deco design features sweeping shapes that reach for murals on an ornate ceiling. Potted palms and mauve-colored booths fan out like seashells to provide a sense of privacy while you dine.
Speaking of dinner, Orchids is also renowned for its fine dining experience. Still, when people talk about the restaurant (and write about it) the conversation always seems to start with the opulent surroundings. Todd Kelly, the new Chef de Cuisine, seems determined to flip that conversation.
"I want to turn the place into a powerhouse of fine dining in Cincinnati," he says emphatically when asked about his vision for his new digs.
Orchids has always been on the highest tier of Cincinnati's dining scene, and Kelly's commitment to using the finest ingredients might take them over the top. The tuna on his current menu comes from Hawaii, the lobster from Maine and the micro cilantro travels from the Chef's Garden, a Northern Ohio farm specializing in micro greens. Seasonal dishes featured the night we dined included John Dory, skate and venison.
The menu is unabashed in its expectation of diners. Kelly meticulously describes the ingredients of each dish, but does not dumb it down with definitions.
(Mirliton? It's like a chayote. Lovage? A celery-like vegetable.) Don't worry if you're not armed with a food dictionary -- that's what your server is for.
After my friend and I identify as many ingredients as we can, I order the four-course tasting menu ($60) with wine pairings ($25). I was a little surprised the server didn't ask if I wanted to make the selections or leave it to the chef since the menu states you can do either, but I was willing to put my trust in the chef.
My first course was a mche salad topped with fresh currents, dressed with a honey-yuzu vinaigrette and served with a Medjool date and Brie grilled cheese. The brightness of the currents, served frozen, were a beautiful contrast to the greens, leaving vibrant trails of berry blood across the white plate as they thawed, but the grilled cheese was the star of the plate. It was the best I ever had, ever.
I was a little let down when my second selection arrived and I realized all my courses were coming off the regular menu. On top of that, my second and third courses were the same selections my friend ordered for her appetizer and entrée: "Icy" Yellowtail Tuna Tartare with radishes, micro cilantro and a potato tuile ($13) and Sautéed Skate Wing with Beluga Lentil Vinaigrette and Eucalyptus Glazed Heirloom Carrots ($30). Our plan had been to get as much variety as possible in our selections.
Our towers of tuna tartar stood in little pools of an invigorating cucumber sauce and went quite nicely with the Trimbach Riesling the maitre'd, Barron Matern, had selected, but it made my friend's champagne -- a half bottle of Duval Leroy Brut Rose ($32) -- explode with the taste of fresh raspberries.
The skate was our favorite dish of the night. For this course servers descended upon the table to pull the silver covers from our plates in grand unison and reveal our topless skate floating in its wonderful tangy pool of beluga lentil vinaigrette. The eucalyptus glaze gave the dish a faint licorice taste, only slightly ruined by my friend's observation that it's an ingredient in cough drops, too.
The only venison I've had is wild deer my brother's killed, so I was surprised at the mild taste of the gourmet version in my final course. The salsify glaze and pomegranate reduction gave the medium-rare loin slices a sweet taste, but the mound of smashed taro root seemed flavorless. The presentation was beautiful, with pomegranate seeds and fried salsify sticks, but the dish didn't grab me (even though salsify fries are officially my new favorite vegetable.) Maybe my taste buds were as tired as the waiter at this point, who was trailing off in his descriptions and misidentified the Syrah that was paired with the venison as a Cabernet.
We rounded out the meal with a house-made warm chocolate soufflé served with an iced lemon confection ($9). The molten cake nestled in a chocolate tart crust and oozed chocolate lava when pierced by a fork. The lemon was good, but I guess I'm a bit of a traditionalist; I would have preferred something in a raspberry.
We had mixed feelings about the meal as we left with a "kitty dog" to-go bag in hand. The complications of serving tasting menus and regular meals need to be worked out and the well-schooled serving staff needs a little polish, but the high-quality food is giving Orchids a push to that final hurdle. ©