Restaurant Reviews

This Orchid Is No Thief

And you think I'm cynical about fine dining? Check out the recent story in SmartMoney Magazine by Michael Kaplan called "Ten Things Your Restaurant Won't Tell You." His list, which is fleshed out by real-life examples of how restaurants have ripped off their customers, includes categories such as "Our Food Is Sickening," "We Can't Control Our Help," and "Our Chefs Are Masters -- at Making TV Dinners."

Of course, I admire sarcasm at its finest. But that's only part of the reason why it occurred to me that Kaplan's criteria would be a great way to judge the Black Orchid Café, a six-year veteran of the Fort Lauderdale upscale dining industry. Simply put, the deliberately exotic Black Orchid, rather than proving Kaplan's pessimistic assertions, outdoes itself by refuting them one by one.

For instance, Kaplan may have a point when he recommends that you "do yourself a favor" when it comes to Valentine's Day and "Give candy, roses, jewelry. Just don't take your one-and-only out to dinner." It's true that many restaurants may raise their prices that evening and that others will be crowded. No doubt that a meal at Black Orchid can easily cost you as much as $75 per (sans vino, tax, and tip), but those prices don't change -- they're always really high. And if the place is fully booked on that special hallmark eve, it's because, as one of the most romantic eateries in town, it ought to be. Animal-print fabrics, live orchids, muted lighting, and service so respectful the waiters could be altar boys? This place is a given for the big V-Day. Just make sure to do three things ahead of time: Reserve a table now, save up for the $150 Bollinger Grand Annee Brut '90, and order one of those luscious chocolate soufflés even before the meltingly tender buffalo carpaccio appetizer. This way, you'll bookend your meal with the best items Black Orchid has to offer, even if you do have to call in your bookkeeper to arrange payment for them.

I also agree with Kaplan's assessments that at some restaurants, especially steak houses, the "mark-ups [on side dishes] will gag you." He also contends that customers pay for what other patrons steal -- you know, like the Sweet'N Low packets you surreptitiously drop in your pocket so you don't have to run out to Publix the next morning -- and unexpectedly expensive services like corkage fees. To which I add, if you're going to a steak house, you know at the outset that the creamed spinach is à la carte. As for the other so-called "hidden costs," they're really just the price of doing business. When you get your oil changed, the garage mechanic isn't going to break down the final bill to tell you just how much is devoted to buying those little cloths they use to wipe the dipsticks. The minutiae just don't matter.

What does take precedence is this: Some restaurants are unabashed in their pricing policies, and Black Orchid is one of them. Filet of beef Wellington, rack of lamb, osso buco, and veal Shalimar, which exemplify the classic and somewhat outdated direction the menu takes, are all just 5 cents shy of 30 bucks. Turn to the back page of the menu, where chef-proprietor George Telles, a gastronomic refugee of the once-kingly-and-now-exiled Plum Room, lists "fresh and unique selections" that run like a beautiful balloon -- up, up, and away -- and you may start apologetically fingering your credit card.

But this orchid is no thief. The quality and size of Telles' portions, partnered with a starch that is usually wild-rice pilaf, almost justify the tags. Yes, the loin of Canadian elk and the tenderloin of Western buffalo seem a trifle uppity, even for game that's rarely seen -- and if seen, rarely rare -- in these here parts. But both were exceptional main courses: supple, delectable, and blood-red. Neither was gamy, though the meats proved flavorful enough to stand up to their respective sauces: a vibrant lingonberry over the roasted elk, and a tri-peppercorn cream on the buffalo, its power so wonderfully restrained it put all other au poivre preparations I've had in recent years to shame. However, if the 50 bucks required for the buffalo makes you balk, tackle the 16-ounce New York strip au poivre instead. At about two-thirds of the buffalo's price, with the same aromatic brandied peppercorn sauce, it's a value-driven choice.

The same deal goes for the lobster à la "whiskey," a two-pound Maine lobster that is shelled, chunked, and flambéed with a good-ol'-boys' beverage. Then the whole is covered with a rich Hollandaise, to the equally rich tune of $49.95. But if you don't feel like laying out what could probably cover a modest utility bill, then consider the swordfish "Kennebunkport" entrée. At half the price, the swordfish steak, napped with lobster sauce and garnished with artichoke hearts and Hollandaise, was a bit overcooked. But the buttery novelty of "Chinese rice field lobster tails" -- aqua-agriculture is a popular method of farming in China -- which topped the fresh, clean-tasting fish made the dish worthwhile.

You can explore the rice-fish symbiosis more thoroughly in another fish entrée, the snapper Provençale, topped with a sauté of tomatoes, mushrooms, scallions, and garlic in white wine, that is accompanied by the tails; or in the brandy-heightened lobster bisque, derived from those crustaceans that thrive in rice paddies. But a nonseafood soup option, the New England-style corn chowder, might be even more appealing. Freshly roasted corn, releasing the milk from its newly cut kernels into the broth, accentuates its gentle creaminess. A hefty dose of applewood-smoked bacon and a smattering of biddable white onions and potatoes complete the eats-like-a-meal requirements; add the crusty sourdough rolls, follow it with a mixed green salad with mango chutney dressing, and this is the ideal light supper for a cool winter evening.

In fact, don't forget to warm up with a little red wine. Kaplan wants us to believe that the wine lists rook customers by selling wines that they haven't bottle-aged appropriately. I fault them more for the prices of the bottles, often triple the wholesale, but I do insist that the consumer take some responsibility for a lack of knowledge. Just because a restaurant has a Caymus Vineyards Special Selection Cabernet Sauvignon on the menu doesn't mean you should drink it -- at least, not if it was released after '00. Fortunately, the Black Orchid Caymus bottling is the '98, a good sign that Telles isn't trying to sell a wine before its time. He just wants to collect $240 for it.

Actually, the extensive wine list's real fallibility lies in its limitation of regional scope. The majority of vintages hail from California and France, with only a couple of each sourced from Italy, Australia, and South America. I'd love to see some expansion in that area, if only because the ideal match for the immensely pleasing wild African game pheasant, dramatically flambéed tableside and moistened with a wild mushroom gravy, would be a South African Pinotage.

But as Kaplan notes, some restaurants don't live to serve; they exist to fleece the unsuspecting consumer. He writes about such tactics in the category called "Our Fancy Names Will Fool You" -- a division in which the Black Orchid definitely does not fit. Fancy it may be, but the only fool is the diner who makes such generalizations based on price.