Though I’m a big fan of the LES for going out, getting lunch, or shopping at funky boutiques, I don’t venture down that far very often for dinner – and certainly not for dinner at a restaurant where the average entrée costs around $25. However, at the suggestion of a friend, I wound up at The Orchard last Saturday, an American Nouveau restaurant with Italian, Spanish, and even Asian influences (which sounds a little overwhelming, as if maybe they’re trying to do and be too much).
When I arrived, I had to take a moment to adjust to the scenery and sort of soak everything up. The décor of the restaurant is a mixture of art deco and Japanese, and the entire place is illuminated by orange lights – not Sunny D orange, but more of an amber hue. If you’ve ever been in a black and white photography dark room, it was very much akin to the dull orange lighting you would find there. There were also some artificial vines here and there, which definitely threw me for a loop… The overall design of the restaurant is confusing and a little off-putting – it definitely made me question whether or not I wanted to stay.
As I was the first to arrive, I was able to inspect the menu before my dining companion showed up – and the menu made me even more uncertain about the choice of restaurant. It was only one page, they only offered starters and entrees (no soups, salads, side dishes, etc.), and the prices were obscene. Now, I know New York is expensive. Having spent 8 months of my life here now (which still isn’t terribly long), I’ve come to just accept that bottled water is $3 and gum is almost $2. The prices just seem normal, and in the case of restaurants, I understand that rent is expensive here and they have to adjust prices up accordingly. However, for a restaurant in the LES to charge $28 for a duck breast and side of risotto seems a little exorbitant.
In any case, I decided to stick it out and make the best of this place – especially because my friend seemed really excited. After taking another look at the menu, this time ignoring the prices, I noticed the steak tartare flatbread. If you’ve read my review on Fig & Olive (which was horrible), you’ll know that I’m a sucker for steak tartare, despite the disturbing fact that you’re eating raw beef. I was a little concerned, however, when I noticed that it involved a “tartare sauce,” which called up memories of the mayonnaise-soaked chipped beef at Fig & Olive. Nonetheless, I couldn’t resist. I had to at least try it. We decided to split the flatbread, and then I ordered the Orchard Paella, which the waiter highly recommended (though, how could he not when it was $26?), and my friend ordered the Wild Crab Pasta. In addition, this friend ordered a cocktail that sounded pretty incredible. Called the “Southern Gentleman,” it’s a mixture of Maker’s Mark, fresh lemon juice, pear nectar, natural maple syrup, and cinnamon.
The drink, obviously, was the first item to arrive. I was pretty pumped to taste it, as I love all of the ingredients in this drink and I was really excited that see what kind of flavor profile they combined to create. Unfortunately though, all that either of us could detect was the flavor of Maker’s Mark. On one hand, I guess we could have been thankful that we definitely got our money’s worth in terms of the amount of alcohol included – but we could have just ordered a Maker’s and water and achieved nearly the same flavor. So, for $12 – good value if your goal is to get drunk, terrible value if you’re looking for a really creative, delicious cocktail.
Thankfully, our flatbread arrived shortly thereafter. It looked lovely when it was placed on our table – crispy golden edges on the flatbread, vibrant pink beef on top. I was a little worried that the dish would be overcooked and too hot to really enjoy the raw steak portion, but after my first bite, any hesitation I had about the dish melted away and I was in a state of pure bliss. I devoured my half of the flatbread in a matter of a few minutes – it was that good. The bread was warm and soft, there was a layer of a well-seasoned mashed potato mixture, and then the large chunks of steak on top were still cool, fresh, and delicious.
After annihilating the flatbread, it was a long time before our entrees arrived. Luckily, we had plenty to talk about, so it wasn’t unbearable – but the delay on the food could be problematic for other groups of diners (although I’m inclined to believe that the delay might be attributable to my paella, as that is traditionally made to order). When they finally arrived however, I was thrilled – and not just because I was super hungry.
My paella was beautiful to look at. It was a combination of shrimp, mussels, chorizo sausage, chicken, and lobster – and they were not kidding around with the lobster. There was an entire lobster tail and a claw sitting atop my rice. There was also an abundance of all of the other ingredients. The last time I had paella (which also happened to be at the totally abysmal Fig & Olive), I was given basically one bite of meat. Here, I couldn’t avoid it in any bite I took, which is fan-tastic. The rice portion of the paella was terrific – it was incredibly moist and flavorful. It wasn’t dry or sticky or just coated with seasoning. Rather, it had clearly been cooking in a pot with plenty of stock, wine, and seasoning. The meats were also superb. The chorizo was incredibly flavorful and well cooked – not greasy or chewy. The shrimp were large, and the mussels were steamed to perfection. My only complaint was the lobster. Though it was good and had plenty of meat, it tasted a little fishy. Lobster is supposed to have a sweet flavor (at least as far as I know…), but like my friend said, you could really taste the sea. I don’t think this is the restaurant’s fault, but it’s just one thing to note. Though I didn’t get to try my dining companion’s pasta dish, it looked super yummy with its rich cream sauce and plentiful crab meat – and while I had a little paella left over to take home, they completely cleaned their plate.
At the end of the meal, we ultimately passed on dessert, as nothing was really awe-inspiring. The dessert menu just seemed to be a bit of any afterthought, with very traditional items like flourless chocolate cake and a cinnamon apple crumble.
Overall, I was very pleased with my meal. I was able to swallow the price of the food in the end because it was simply fantastic. My only complaints are the décor and the lack of an interesting dessert menu. But, since most people are probably searching for a restaurant based on the quality of the food and not these other factors, I would recommend The Orchard. It’s definitely a place to check out if you’re on an intimate date with a long(er)-time partner (it’s too expensive and dimly lit for a first date) or if you’re celebrating a major occasion with a friend or loved one.