Dinner Out @ Orchids at Palm Court

Orchids at Palm Court probably does not need an introduction for many Amateur Foodies readers. Named Cincinnati's #1 Restaurant by Cincinnati Magazine the past 2 years, Chef Todd Kelly (interviewed here by Epi-ventures) has led Orchid's to a clear spot as the restaurant to beat in the Queen City. And if our visit was any indication, stealing their perch is not going to be easy for anyone in town.

The Food: There were a number of things on the menu (which changes frequently) we'd never heard of, and as much as we pay attention to food and eat out, that is always impressive. We spent a while deciding on what to order, and then dove right in.

We ordered four first courses because this portion of the menu really jumped out to us as the most interesting. The Maine Lobster Salad, Braised Pork Belly, Seared Hudson Valley Foie Gras, and Marinated Yellowtail Tuna. But before any of our orders came, an
amuse-bouche! The salmon tartare - with crispy potato crouton on the bottom, as well as micro greens, ginger, cucumber water, lime oil, and salmon roe - was a great way to get us started. As we discussed the menu with the server, we knew Copper River salmon had just arrived, and it was clear the kitchen was ready to play.

The tuna and foie gras came first. With a nice buttery edge to the fish and sweet potato shavings on top, we had the first of what would be several opportunities to taste truly exquisite flavor combinations. Small pieces of soy sauce-flavored jelly worked well with the smoky Worcestershire aioli, brussel sprouts, and bacon. While they did know it was Sarah's birthday, we also may have gotten some blogger love as a syrupy sweet wine came along with foie gras, which was like a continuation of the foie's flavor. Foie gras was sitting on top of a sour cream pancake and was covered in a rich sauce of pear
mostarda, and small pieces of cocoa nib and dried corn primarily added texture to the dish. We found the foie gras to be good, but not great - not as seared as one would like in a perfect world. This was the "least awesome" of the four first courses.

Next up were the lobster salad - which I didn't realize until I'd had a bite was a play on traditional egg salad - and pork belly. The lobster was topped with a creme fraiche and caviar cream, an organic egg, and parsley, and also had thin strips of
brick paper (like phyllo dough) for added texture. Every bite was moist and cool, and the white wine they paired it with was perfect (I feel like we should mention this was when we started to wonder if they knew we were bloggers - wine pairings were brought without asking, which the server explained at the end of the night as being because of Sarah's birthday. More likely it's because a friend of ours that used to work there called to let them know we were coming - we didn't know this until after the evening). The pork belly had caraway micro greens, more of the soy sauce jelly pieces, cider and miso. When you got a bit of everything at once it was crunchy, oozy, salty, sweet, and chewy at the same time. It was as we were savoring these dishes that we felt like we could taste the season changing from spring to summer in every bite. It also seemed clear to us that this was, indeed, the best restaurant in Cincinnati.

For entrees, we had seared scallops and a prime ribeye from
Niman Ranch (also a supplier for Chipotle). The scallops came with a curry oil that was great, and had unagi (barbecue eel) on its side to go with carrots, microgreens, almonds, and a quail egg and orange on top, all on a bed of potato puree. They brought us a white Bordeaux that was like a Sauvignon Blanc - it was fresh and tingly with a nice balance, and went very well with the sweet scallop. I liked the scallops, but wasn't sure about the fishy flavor the unagi brought - however when I added very small bits of unagi it added to the other sweet things that were happening and wasn't so bad. It was another excellent dish in terms of varied textures, the crunchiness from the almonds was a nice touch. Our steak turned out to be what we thought of as the only normal thing we'd had during the whole meal, and as a result it was the only thing we weren't excited about. Red wine was matched well, but the hedgehog mushrooms and black truffle gnocchi simply did not wow. They'd set an awful high bar at this point. The steak also comes with a lobster mac and cheese that was aromatic for what it was, but was nothing to write home about either. This dish was most happily consumed as leftovers in a never-to-be-matched steak omlette the next morning.

We'd been told we must save room for dessert, so we did box up our steak and move on to the sweet options. There were some amazing desserts to choose from, but we chose the one they suggested "if you're a chocoholic." A macaroon-esque almond cookie was my favorite part of the very rich dessert. Sarah enjoyed the fluffy mouse that was adorned with a homemade Crunch bar, whipped cream, and a raspberry sauce.

Along with our check, the server brought a treat from the pastry chef before we left - trio of candies - a jelly, a macaroon, and a chocolate with peanut butter inside that was topped with gold dust.

The Ingredients: There were a number of sources noted on the menu, but it was hard to get a sense of how many were local. I hadn't heard of many of the producers, and some Googling based on the menu that's online currently (which is exactly or very close to the same) didn't get me much more information. Orchids also notes organic ingredients in a few places, and in general, it is clear they are paying close attention to top notch ingredients.

The Story, Setting, & Service: Our server was a smiler, and he really helped break down our biggest concern - that Orchids would be stuffy and overly pretentious. To be realistic, sitting in a dining room like they have at the Hilton Netherland Plaza, you'll never feel at home (unless you are very, very wealthy) - it's just a matter of whether it feels good to try on such opulence for a night, or if it makes you uncomfortable.

We've gone to the hotel bar a couple times before, and when we've peaked into Orchids its been darn near empty. When we sat down, there were a handful of other diner's present, and since it was just a bit before a Reds game, the full bar made it feel lively. By the time we were done eating, there were only three others at the restaurant, but by that time we were so smitten by the food that the atmosphere was an afterthought.

A beautiful orchid-strewn centerpiece, a cushy circular booth, live piano playing in the back, staff that regularly use their
Table Crumbers - it is the ceaseless attention to detail that takes this from more than an amazing meal and up to an overall special experience. Sarah went to the bathroom, they came by and took her barely used, but no longer perfectly folded napkin, and replaced it before she came back. They were patient with us as we ate slowly and savored every bite, delivering dishes at just the right time, every time. And speaking of delivering dishes - the entrees come underneath dome covers on platters, and the staff take the domes off at exactly the same time. I saw them do it at other tables, so knew it was coming, and was still impressed.

The Last Bite (hereby beginning what will become an Amateur Foodies outro tradition - Sarah and I both always leave the best bite on our plates for last, so this will be the last word on the food, including our favorite last bites): Orchid's is a place that you simply have to go if you love food and want to sample the best. We took the opportunity of Sarah's last day of school/birthday as our special occasion to warrant a trip. It's actually not that much more expensive than most of the other "nice" restaurants in town, and you can even skip the entrees and just do first and second courses to make it more affordable. The combination of a truly decadent room, top notch service, and amazing food make this a place you can't make any more excuses not to visit. I may never forget the Maine Lobster Salad, and Sarah couldn't stop talking about both the tuna and the pork belly.

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