Orchids – CLOSED

By | February 13, 2007

Orchids – CLOSED
4519 Centre Ave
North Oakland, 15213
M-F: 11-2:30, 5-10; Sat-Sun: 11:30-3, 5-10 (buffet only at lunchtime)

Just when I thought we had a long road of sub-genius restaurants ahead of us, in Week 8 we found a surprise in the relatively brand new restaurant, Orchids. Orchids moved into the old location of India Palace (which moved Downtown), and offers a bizarre set of dishes. The menu is entirely vegetarian, with entrées from around the world. Though it has Mexican, Chinese, and Italian dishes, the focus is primarily Indian. You can tell because the burritos have rajmah inside, and the spaghetti is topped with nut balls (a la Malai Kofta). Such an international menu makes one worry about the overall quality of a restaurant (especially after last week’s dinner at Namaste India), but the food here was surprisingly nice, with some dishes from the test list rivaling the best we’ve had yet. They had an extensive Southern Indian menu, with fairly decent dosai (better than others we have had so far) and fantastic upma. Will it beat Udipi? We won’t know for a couple weeks yet, but Orchids is definitely worth going back to again and again.

Not everything at Orchids is perfect. There were no pappadams, the breads were a little boring, and the biryani was uninteresting. The yogurt was nothing fancy, and as a result the raita was kinda blah. Also, the Gobi Manchurian we ordered from the Chinese menu (a little bit of a tradition now) was extremely Chinese-restaurant-like, with a sauce much like the gelatinous, candy-red glaze of General Tso fame. It amazes me that this Gobi Manchurian made-up dish is semi-prevalent yet completely different at every location we get it at. Here, the cauliflower was supposed to be fried, but seemed perhaps steamed (or at least there was very little breading). There were too many other veggies and everything became hard to identify with that gloop all over it. It wasn’t exactly bad, but again – if you are keen to get Gobi Manchurian, just go to Tamarind: Savoring India.

Most of the Northern Indian dishes were pretty tasty. The ratings were variable on the Channa Masala and Daal, but the Saag Paneer was pretty freakin’ great. I really loved it – it was my favorite yet. SWEET!! Some people, like Laura H., preferred the Saag Paneer at India Garden: Monroeville and Taj Mahal. They are all the best of the bunch so far, and it really depends on what your desires in a Saag Paneer are. There are many aspects of the dish that need to be attended to, including spinachiness, creaminess, cheese quality, and overall flavor. I am looking for the perfect intersection of all 4 components, but some people are more interested in the spinach than the cream, or vice versa. If I plotted what the restaurants we have been to so far look like on these scales, it would look like this:

You can see here that Taj Mahal is the spinachiest, and that Prince of India is the creamiest. Also note that Prince of India’s Saag Paneer is lower on all the other scales! To get a better look at only the good Saag Paneers, take a look at this chart:


These are the three best restaurants for Saag Paneer that we have found so far. All three are similar in overall flavor and cheese quality, but markedly differ in their spinach to cream ratio. It is easy to see from this graph that Orchids is a near-perfect diamond of balance. But, sometimes you don’t want all that creaminess, in which case it is clear that you should check out Taj Mahal, where the Saag Paneer would be Popeye’s favorite. Or maybe the creaminess is what you desire – go to India Garden: Monroeville.

But, let’s move on. Though it has some tasty Northern dishes, I really think that the Southern offerings are quite delicious as well. They had many varieties of Vada (lentil doughnut). Vada in this, vada in that, vada in nada….we got Dhai Vada (in yogurt) because that is our test vada. The Dhai Vada here was not so good, as the yogurt was nuttin’ special, and the doughnuts were seemingly fried in oil that hadn’t had a recent change. But, these mistakes may be because of the recent opening of the restaurant, and I’d be willing to try their many other vada offerings in the future.

The Masala Dosai was the best we had yet, with a crispy crepe and a filling of completely cooked potatoes with genuine flavor. It will be very interesting to see how it stacks up to the Dosai at Udipi. The accompanying Rasam soup was just OK, lacking in vegetables, but the coconut chutney was more pleasant than others we have had. It had real coconut flavor, and was only a little too watery. It’s biggest fault was that it was perhaps too sweet.

The real shining star of the night was the Upma we ordered. Upma is kind of like cream of wheat with spices, fruits, nuts, and vegetables thrown in. Despite the savory flavor, it is traditionally a breakfast item. Personally, I can eat it all the time. Upma can be fairly tricky to make flavorful, and many restaurants will overcompensate with excessive amounts of ghee. Well, of course butter makes everything delicious!!! But, it can also be quite heavy, and to eat a whole bowl of it is a real gut bomb. The best Upma should be flavored predominantly by toasty grains, yummy bits of veggies, and warm spices. At Orchids, the Upma was just that. I have no doubt that a native Indian could make it better in his home, but for restaurant Upma this was high quality. Many of our raters had never had it, and they were all surprised by how much they liked it in the end. Anita B. called it rad, and she can sometimes be a tough cookie to please. Best of all, they made too much of it for us, so I had a pile of leftovers the next day. YUM!

We also had ordered the uthappam, but it never made it to the table. This was just as well, because we were unbelievably full by the end of the meal. Actually, we were full at the end of the appetizers! Something about this place just made us all so damn full. It might have been bigger portions, or more cream and butter in the dishes, but whatever it was we rolled out of there on big fat bellies. No reported cases of abo-abdo though. Just know that you should order one less entrée than you think you should. To make it even better, the price is right (especially for the happy fullness you will feel as you leave).

One last thing I’d like to note is the incredible distinction in the ratings between the Core 5, and the overall average among the 8 tasters. The regulars who have been to every restaurant so far considered this place to be among the best yet, with many of the ratings in the 4-5 range. Interestingly, the other tasters rated everything almost one full point less than the Core 5 (0.8 to be precise). Interpretations of this difference may vary. One could say that the Core 5 ratings are more reliable because they are actively developing a palate for Indian cuisine. Alternatively, the general public does not necessarily have that palate, and so the other raters might better represent what their tastes might be. Finally, this could be a sign that the Core 5 members have become more like each other in their expectations and have thus merged tastes, possibly making it a weaker unit of judgment (a la incest). Or maybe this strengthens their judgment because the Core 5 are able to more clearly see what each dish should be like, and therefore how a restaurant fails to make it delicious. You can make your own determination, but personally I really liked the food here and will surely be coming back. Keep in mind that not everything they have is perfect, but with a little experimentation you are sure to find a fast favorite among their offerings.

Saag Paneer
Masala Dosai
Samosa (thin, crispy crust and flavorful filling)

Dhai Vada wasn’t great
Probably you should avoid the international menu
Biryani was blah

On your way to the bathroom, check out the painting on the wall. Guy or Gal? If you think you have the answer, email me or leave a comment.

A 6 is pretty spicy here, which was completely refreshing after weeks of 6=mild. Thank goodness! Also, check out the weekly graphs, yo! They’re getting’ packed!