2756 Elmwood Ave., Kenmore NY 14217
Web: Orchid Asian Bistro
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Japanese Kenmore Thai
"If you live near Kenmore or are willing to drive there for an atypically good value for the dollar - particularly on the Thai side of the menu - you'll find Orchid to be worthy of a visit."
When you hear the words "hotbed of Asian restaurants and shopping," Kenmore probably isn't the first place that comes to mind, but that's changing: a single plaza on Elmwood near Sheridan now hosts T&T Asian Market, the Chinese barbecue shop Prince BBQ, the more traditional Chinese take-out called Ling Ling, and now a new restaurant: Orchid Asian Bistro. With a sushi bar in the front of a nice little dining room, Orchid describes itself as offering a "fusion" of Japanese and Thai food - a locally unique pairing unless you count the few Thai specials at Buffalo's Tokyo Shanghai Bistro. Since this restaurant's so new, what follows is only an opinionated preview; we are going to hold off on a rating until it's had a proper chance to settle into the neighborhood.
Mixed First Impressions. Between its increasingly grating music and typo-ridden menus, Orchid Asian Bistro's web site made a poor first impression, undermining our initial enthusiasm about stopping in for a meal. Thankfully, we were pleasantly surprised when we entered a restaurant that was nicely decorated and clean, if not fully finished: our request for a table in the back was discouraged because it was "too cold back there," according to our server, one of two who made every attempt to be polite despite somewhat limited English language skills.
Apart from the small hiccups, Orchid has succeeded in creating a semi-classy environment that's roughly on par with, say, Elmwood's Wasabi, but larger, which is to say that it's several steps more upmarket than the typical takeout but a couple steps shy of requiring you to dress up - unless you want to bring a sweater and sit in the back. There's just enough booth, table, and sushi bar seating to accommodate roughly 40 people, and roughly a quarter of the restaurant was filled during our visit.
Lots of Choices. Orchid Asian Bistro's menu is surprisingly broad, and the pricing ranges from surprisingly low to just a hint above reasonable given the quantity and quality of the food. Pricier is the full Japanese selection, which is heavy on sushi and specialty rolls, while the other half of the menu is what's best understood as an affordable Chinese version of Thai food, plus a handful of fusion dishes in the middle. The result is a collection of entrees that range from Japanese Salmon Teriyaki ($13) to Thai Green Curry with Beef ($10) to Chilean Sea Bass ($21), plus starters ranging from Japanese Miso Soup to Thai Papaya Salad ($6), American house salads, and Sashimi ($8), all of which we ordered. Entree-sized steaks, red snapper, pad thai and udon all appear on the menu, too, alongside appetizers such as tom yum soup, gyoza, and satay.
Good News: Good Food. We don't say this often about "fusion" restaurants, but regardless of whether the dishes were supposed to be Japanese, Thai, fusion, or something else, we enjoyed almost everything we ordered. Orchid's $8 Sashimi Appetizer may have only arrived with seven of the promised eight pieces of sliced fish - a piece of salmon was missing - and the fish mightn't have been the freshest we've tasted locally, but it was good, including tasty, thick pieces of yellowtail and slightly grainy but otherwise nice tuna. Additionally, the restaurant's rendition of Papaya Salad was visually off a little due to cubed ingredients that barely resembled the traditional Thai thin-sliced versions, but the flavors and textures were otherwise right on target, including the crispy, thin green papaya, red onions, and the sweet and sour flavor of the dressing; moreover, the portion was reasonable for the $6 asking price. On the flip side, the Miso Soup included with one appetizer was served only a little hotter than lukewarm, and the iceberg-heavy House Salad included with two entrees was bland and served with a not-especially-Japanese-or-Thai ranch-ish dressing. Of course, Orchid offers alternatives - a shrimp, scallop, and crabmeat Seafood Miso, plus six other salads - for those who want more interesting starter options.
Another of those options was the Tuna Martini ($8), a mix of chopped spicy tuna, seaweed, and tobiko roe served in with a little decorative flourish in a martini glass. Though each of the items could easily have been enjoyed separately, as they are in other sushi and salad menu items, they went well together here: a little chili-sesame sauce spiced up the fresh fish, while the properly rubbery seaweed and tiny caviar added interesting texture to the cup. The recipe mightn't have been entirely original, but we liked it all the same.
Entrees As A Highlight, With A Caveat. Though we were generally pleased with the appetizers, we all agreed that our entrees were surprisingly strong: the three dishes took an unusually long time to emerge from the kitchen, but were comparatively impressive in presentation and flavor. First up was the Chilean Sea Bass, a large filet that had been pan seared to a pleasantly crispy exterior while leaving the center soft and moist, if not completely intact. Between the reasonable portion of fish, the sweet miso-mango sauce, and the generous underbelly of fresh and unusually savory vegetables - asparagus, pea pods, and broccoli - we initially felt that this dish could nearly have been served in a higher-end restaurant, apart from its relatively plain presentation. Then a Japanese-style dish, Salmon Teriyaki, arrived with the same collection of vegetables and an even more massive split filet of fish on the top; everything was coated in a shimmering brown sugared soy sauce with sesame seeds. Like the sea bass, the salmon was wonderfully cooked, and the flavor was almost too good to be true: since when do asparagus, salmon, and pea pods taste this good and rich?
Only later did we realize that the unusually succulent dishes had been enhanced with MSG - two members of our group found themselves with characteristic MSG runny noses and unusually strong symptoms of sleeplessness. But the third member of our group didn't: his dish was the Thai Green Curry with Beef, another example of the restaurant's less than completely authentic yet still satisfying approach to Thai cuisine. Despite the $10 asking price, the bowl that arrived contained one of the largest portions of green curry, vegetables, and beef that we've ever received: probably twice the beef and three times the veggies of a typical order, with plenty of fresh sliced red peppers, green pea pods, and white onions to go with a comparatively small cup of white rice - a few small eggplant slices were in there, too. Our standard issues with the authenticity of a dish disappear when the flavors are good and the portion is generous; even if the green curry was a little on the thin side, there's no doubt that this one was mighty satisfying for the price, anyway.
Dessert options were limited but compelling enough for us to consider placing an order. From a single-page menu that consisted of three ice cream flavors - green tea, chocolate, and vanilla - plus flaming deep-fried tempura versions of the ice cream and a deep-fried banana with ice cream, we settled on the Tempura Banana with Green Tea Ice Cream, then waited for what felt like 10 minutes for our server to take the order. She eventually returned, told us that they were out of green tea ice cream, then confused us a little by bringing out spoons in apparent ignorance of our request for the check. It was an odd ending to an otherwise nice meal, and one that we'd blame on an unfortunate linguistic misunderstanding.
We're holding back on a final conclusion and rating for the time being, but we will say this: Orchid Asian Bistro feels at this point like an unpolished, semi-precious stone. If you live near Kenmore or are willing to drive there for an atypically good value for the dollar - particularly on the Thai side - you'll find Orchid to be worthy of a visit. That said, Thai or Japanese purists might be better off looking elsewhere, and between the menu, the service hiccups, and the MSG, we're hoping that the restaurant fixes its remaining rough edges. We're planning to stop back in, and are hoping that we'll once again be pleasantly surprised by the results.