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Thursday, May 8, 2008

PERENNIAL FAVORITE

Colorful dishes possess a modern sensibility

Posted on Thu, May 8, 2008 at 4:00 AM

Aesthetics always play a role in Thai cooking, more so than in any other cuisine, or so it seems. Artistically pared vegetables lolling in colorful curries plated with near-perfect geodesic mounds of rice are common, and in the case of this Winter Park restaurant, beautiful orchids adorn every dish. And this being Park Avenue, style clearly has a place in Orchid’s small, yet tastefully decorated, dining room: postmodern art pairs gracefully with a serene color scheme illumined by the flicker of candlelight, while the soothing sounds of lounge keep the ambience at a comfortable chill.

The renovations undertaken by the charming husband-and-wife team have been significant, perhaps in an effort to rid the address of its hex. The space has seen a few eateries bite the dust in the past four years, but if the owners have their way, the only biting taking place will be diners sinking their teeth into traditional Thai meals.

Green curry ($14), for example, with its rich coconut gravy perfumed with kaffir lime and Thai basil, is a nostril-flaring cross of infernal spice and subtle sweetness, with texture provided by zucchini and bell peppers. The bowl of tom yum soup ($5) may have been small, but it packed a fiery wallop. Plump curls of shrimp smacked with the essence of lemongrass were delightfully crunchy, while bracing bursts of cilantro enlivened the broth. I also enjoyed the curry puffs ($6), with their East-meets-South blend of Indian seasonings and South American form. The flavors resembled a samosa, but the flaky pastry and turnover shape were more like an empanada.

Mieng kum ($10) suffered from its own trendiness. Spooning the mix of toasted coconut, dried shrimp, peanuts, ginger, onions and tiny wedges of lime into spinach leaves was a cumbersome exercise, and dipping the green wrap into tamarind plum sauce required enough dexterity to discourage the most patient of diners. The larb chicken’s ($18) a better choice if you like your meal inside a leaf. The zing to the salad’s piquant mix of cilantro, mint, red onions and minced chicken is a painful pleasure, though a little more lime juice would’ve offset the slightly desiccated appearance. The dish certainly benefited from a tempered use of fish sauce, which often can overwhelm the flavors of the other ingredients.

Thai iced coffee ($4), splashed with sweetened condensed milk and ornamented with a pink orchid, was my go-to palate-soother of choice, though exceptionally sticky and salty-sweet coconut rice ($7) crowned with a fleshy slab of mango will also work wonders in dousing fires in your mouth. Thai custard ($5) wasn’t available, but golden Thai doughnuts ($5), sweetened in a peanut-sprinkled dip of condensed milk, were a worthy, if light and airy, substitute.

Lunchtime selections are limited – though the owners vow that menu expansion will take place in the coming weeks – but that hasn’t stopped diners from enjoying an al fresco nosh at the tables outside. Waitresses are efficient and unobtrusively go about their business inside the small dining room, leaving diners to take in the surroundings and luxuriate in the visual feast.

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