Diner: Food Court

Orchids is better than ever in downtown's Netherland Plaza

A few years ago, on a trip through beautiful, windswept Joshua Tree National Park, I was amazed by the oases there — mysterious, mossy places, cooled by breezes and shaded by palm trees from the blinding heat and glare. I was definitely thinking oasis when I clambered out of a recent cold Friday night into the Hilton Cincinnati Netherland Plaza. I was heading for dinner at Orchids, in the hotel's renowned Palm Court — a two-story Art Deco atrium filled with dark woods, stone, fountains and a thicket of palms.

Orchids, a former fixture on the Cincinnati dining scene, reopened last summer after more than a five-year absence, and I'm glad it's back. With its unique setting, thoughtfully prepared food and excellent service, the resurrected Orchids is a great boost to the downtown culinary scene. At the helm is Chef Christopher Calhoun, who comes to Cincinnati with a degree from the Culinary Institute of America and experience cooking at award-winning restaurants in Atlanta, Philadelphia and Washington.

I started with the Hand-Cut Tagliatelle Pasta with Peekytoe Crab, Mild Chilies and Pecorino Romano Cheese ($12). Although the pasta was light and feathery, the crabmeat sweet and delicate and the chilies added a perfect amount of heat, it fell short of the mark; I found it oily, a little light on the crab and it could have used a pinch of salt.

My companion ordered the Chilled Calamari and Mango Salad with Tobiko Wasabi Mouselline and Grilled Eel ($12). Although this dish proved too heavy and rich for my palate, I can see how others might really like it.

Creamy, rich and complex, it had an interesting selection of skillfully integrated ingredients. (A mousseline is a sauce to which whipped cream has been added to give it an airy consistency; Tobiko is flying fish roe combined with wasabi powder.)

Our entrées were outstanding. I ordered the Slowly Baked Organic Irish Salmon over a Lime Mascarpone Risotto with Snow Pea Salad and Hazelnuts ($30). The fish was incredibly fresh, delicately flavored and had a soft, velvety texture. I checked later with the chef who revealed the secret: The salmon is brushed with sake, white miso, white truffle oil, then baked at a low temperature (200 degrees) for 20 minutes. Out of the oven, it's brushed with honey and lime juice and finished with salt and white pepper.

My companion ate the Summerfield Farms Prime Beef Tenderloin Poached in Red Wine over Turnip Gratin with Pickled Turnip Salad and Shallot Sauce ($34). The meat was rich, soft, buttery and perfectly cooked. Again, Chef Calhoun was happy to explain the alchemy behind the dish. He poaches the tenderloin in Shiraz to create a gentle, low-heat that seals in juices and allows for a perfect medium-rare throughout (typically tenderloin is sautéed and grilled, creating a medium-rare core surrounded by a more heavily cooked, dryer exterior). Serious cooking indeed.

We tried two desserts, the White Chocolate and Raspberry Marjolaine, and Hazelnut and Milk Chocolate Mousse Crunch (each priced at $7.50). The Marjolaine, a combination of chocolate and raspberry mousse with meringue, was light and delicious. The Crunch was rich with a nutty, chocolaty flavor. Both were beautifully presented.

Service was extremely professional and attentive; the restaurant uses front and back waiters to ensure that the front waiter is in the room at all times. And anyone who has dined at Orchids in the past will recognize the silver domes that have been brought out of retirement to reveal dishes with a classic flourish. We also enjoyed the attention of the expert yet approachable sommelier. I could definitely get used to this kind of coddling.

The only gaffe was a seating error in the beginning, when the hostess situated my companion and me at a table set for an intimate dinner for two. Don't get me wrong: My brother-in-law is a great guy and all, but it was a bit awkward when he and I found ourselves nearly on top of each other in side-by-side seating. Orchids should do better than this.

The restaurant shares the Palm Court with a bar and another restaurant called the Grille at the Palm Court, which has less formal menu. There is frequently live piano and Jazz in the bar area.

OK, so the food was great, the setting listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the service, world class. A perfect evening, right? Not exactly. I came away with a vague feeling that something was missing: The new Orchids needs more intensity and excitement. It has a slightly stale, sleepy, hotel restaurant kind of feel, as well as significant scale issues caused by the enormous atrium dining room. Even our outstanding meal couldn't combat that.

I would challenge the management to reshape the feel and smell of the place — maybe tweak the lighting, perhaps some of the furnishings — to create a dining experience with a little more intimacy and energy. It's a must to keep pace with the brilliant, cutting-edge, world-class cooking that's rolling out of the kitchen. ©

Go: Hilton Cincinnati Netherland Plaza, 35 W. Fifth St., Downtown

Call: 513-421-9100

Hours: 5:30 p.m.-9:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 5:30 p.m.-10:00 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Closed Sunday-Monday.

Prices: Expensive

Payment: Major credit cards

Red Meat Alternatives: Several fish dishes

Accessibility: Fully. On-street and hotel parking

Grade: A-

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