Orchids at Palm Court Balances Tradition With Transition

One of Cincinnati’s most iconic restaurants draws on its rich history while moving into the future.

Photograph by Wes Battoclette

For a restaurant that can feel like it was preserved in amber around 1920, Orchids has had a few years of rapid change. After the departure of Chef Todd Kelly, who had been at the helm for more than a decade, Chef Maxime Kien took his place and was just beginning to put his stamp on the restaurant when, in September 2018, after less than a year, he left for family reasons. For the first time in many years, it was unclear where the restaurant was headed.

Executive Chef George Zappas

Photograph by Wes Battoclette

The current iteration of Orchids, fortunately, is not a reinvention: Executive Chef George Zappas began at the organization in 2006 and has worked as everything from butcher to director of purchasing. Pastry Supervisor Claire Mongenas, Maître d’Hôtel Samantha Johnston, and Executive Sous Chef Mallory Myers all remain, as do some familiar touches. There is still honey from rooftop hives on the end-of-meal granola bar and the beautiful French press coffee service. As always, there is the service, which has never lost its theatrical flair: Cloches are still removed with synchronized precision for the entrées, and a dozen people remain totally attentive to every aspect of a diner’s meal.

The deepest transition that Orchids faces is anticipating and satisfying the changing tastes of diners. In a March Cincinnati Magazine interview, Zappas talked about respecting the wishes of longtime patrons while also being on the hunt for “the next diner,” and you can taste this balancing act in every aspect of his food. Orchids represents, in many aspects, an older way of doing things, and its team finds itself in the same position as other traditional art forms as one generation of audience ages out and the next hovers outside the doors, wondering where to spend its money, time, and enthusiasm.

You can taste the shift in the opening gift courses, which were unprecedented in my experience at Orchids. The first, a soup with a base of pureed red peppers, was highly Thai-inspired, with the unmistakable funk of fish sauce and the zing of lemongrass. On another night, the same gift course was mouth tingling, with Indian flavors of ground clove and ginger, along with an elegant and surprising base of minced hazelnuts. I personally love these flavors; I am used to their intensity from childhood. But I wonder if longtime diners appreciate them as much as I do.

Venison loin accompanied by a wheatberry matignon, cape gooseberries, and a red wine sauce.

Photograph by Wes Battoclette

Chef Zappas makes many good decisions as he walks this tightrope. First, he has expanded the menu, so there are more three-course options along with lots of small bonus courses, where bigger chances are taken. In entrées, these adventurous touches—ethnic, tropical, intense—are generally confined to the margins (often, I noticed, in the pickles), where they help enliven a more traditional palette of flavors, like the zingy sweet-and-sour mushrooms hidden in a buttery cauliflower soup.

The question is whether all of this will harmonize, whether you can be simultaneously adventurous and classic. On many dishes, the answer is absolutely yes. A dish of sweetbreads served on an eggy custard—very French, very haute cuisine—was transformed by an Asian-inspired pickled leek, and the chanterelle mushrooms, with their rich roasted quality, were set off by flavors of rosemary in the thin slices of kohlrabi. The dish is a symphonic performance across culinary traditions, and it’s completely delicious. A more homely example is the popcorn grits: redolent of Cracker Jacks, the dish is an extraordinary example of craft (the popcorn is passed repeatedly through a sieve until meltingly smooth), and the familiar flavors are deepened with notes of mushroom and the caramelized bite of a charred green onion.

Sweetbreads served on a custard with pickled leeks and mushrooms

Photograph by Wes Battoclette

Deconstructed cannoli

Photograph by Wes Battoclette

On only a few occasions did certain elements strike me as discordant. The intensely floral sweetness of a piece of lychee didn’t belong on the same plate as salmon and beurre blanc; it was like hitting a gong in the middle of a quiet string quartet. And sometimes the desire to surprise results in oddity. The parched corn sprinkled around the lamb dish mainly recalled the freeze-dried astronaut food I tried once as a kid, and added nothing necessary to the dish.

These instances are rare. Almost everything at Orchids is effective, and it would be unfair not to mention the sheer beauty of these dishes. A leaf of chard is folded into a beautiful, red-veined dumpling wrapper surrounding a wheatberry matignon; a few cape gooseberries sit around it, their lacy husks folded out like butterfly wings; slices of venison loin sit alongside in a rich sauce of mulled red wine with the savor of black currants. The dish is so lovely that you hesitate to touch it, and then as the ingredients combine and converse, it gets better and better. The same could be said of Chef Mongenas’s deconstruction of chocolate cannoli, with its scattering of flower petals, little crisps, and ring of crémeux. And it is as much fun to hear the sommelier talk about, for example, the Greek Assyrtiko grape, and how the vines in Santorini, tied down in the intense winds, pick up salinity from the Mediterranean salt spray, as it is to taste the description in the wine.

In short, these people know their stuff, and they work hard for the money. At a certain price point, what you are paying for, as much as any product, is a sense of being cared for. And this is something that Orchids has never stopped delivering.

Orchids at Palm Court, 35 W. Fifth St., downtown, (513) 421-9100

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