Sunday, August 21, 2011
Orchids: Treats from Two of Cincinnati’s Top Chefs - Todd Kelly and Megan Ketover!
Things often don’t turn out as anticipated. A truism I bump into frequently. I’d made reservations at Orchids for friend Cindie and me during Downtown Restaurant Week, then learned she had to drive to Indianapolis for work that day. Cindie was iffy about whether she would be able to join me Tuesday night, which I knew would likely turn into a no. But I stuck to the same line I used when I first asked her about going with me: “I am going to Orchids. Even. If. I. Have. To. Go. By. Myself.”
The high-ceilinged “Palm Court” where Orchids is located, in Cincinnati’s historic art-deco Netherland Plaza Hotel, is one of the most magnificent rooms in the city. Every time I walk into that space, I feel swept away to another time and can’t help but check my daily concerns at the door. It reminds me of another classic art-deco landmark, Radio City Music Hall, which I saw the inside of for the first time when my grandparents visited me in NYC and took me to the annual “Holiday Show.” As the house lights dimmed, my stern, straight-laced Nebraska grandma laid her hand on mine and uttered the most startling and endearing sentence I ever heard from her lips: “In my next life, I want to come back as a Rockette.”
The hotel, which has gone through more changes in ownership since it was built in 1931 than I can keep track of, is currently run by Hilton. I’ve eaten and had drinks there in a number of its iterations, but hadn’t been there since Chef Todd Kelly came on board, garnering Orchids “Best Restaurant in Cincinnati” designation from Cincinnati Magazine for the last two years and consistently glowing praise from Cincinnati Enquirer restaurant critic Polly Campbell, bloggers, and other media sources. Chef Kelly was also recently named the American Culinary Federation’s Chef of the Year.
When I learned one of the chefs competing on the upcoming season of Bravo’s Top Chef: Just Desserts is Orchids’ pastry chef Megan Ketover, my resolve was unshakeable. I’ve been a fan of the Bravo cooking competition show since the beginning, and last fall was invited to join the blogging team at fan blog AllTopChef.com. (Blogging partner The Minx does our “morning after” posts, rounds up links to the most entertaining recaps of the show from around blogosphere, posts preview videos of each episode, and more. Laura Kluvo, founder of Blogging Project Runway, has been contributing podcast exit interviews with the Top Chef contestants for the last several seasons and will likely continue to do so when Just Desserts Season 2 premieres this Wednesday.) My role is to wrangle the ATC email box and write (almost) weekly posts spotlighting news and info from around the web about the show and its contestants from all the seasons. I gather TC news via various avenues, but one of the most fruitful has proven to be friending/fanning contestants on facebook, where many post links about their appearances, events, and other press coverage.
When the cast of TC:JD2 was announced, I sought out all the contestants I could find on fb, and Orchids’ Megan Ketover was one of them. She was kind enough to reply to a couple of questions I asked, and confirmed the desserts on the Orchids Restaurant Week menu would indeed be her creations. She also recommended making RW reservations early, and I was glad I did. Orchids limits the number of RW reservations it accepts each night, and when I called to see if I might switch mine due to Cindie’s schedule, I was out of luck – they were sold out through the week. No problem. I wanted to taste the food of both Chef Kelly and Chef Ketover, and would stick with my original reservation, where three courses could be had at this premiere Cincinnati restaurant for a budget-friendly $35.
I’m not accustomed to approaching celebrities of any ilk, but I screwed up my nerve and asked Megan on fb if there was any chance I might be able to meet her while I was there. I thought it only fair to disclose my connection with AllTopChef, but assured her I would not ask anything that might violate the strict nondisclosure agreement Bravo contestants must sign, which carries a $1 million penalty. Megan replied that she would pop out into the dining room if she could, and my anticipation level edged up another notch.
Walking a block from my downtown office, I arrived at 6:00. Cindie hadn’t called to say she’d be able to join me after all, so I informed the hostess I would be a party of one. The restaurant wasn’t yet full, but I was pleasantly surprised when I was directed, not to a two-top in the middle of the room, but to a spacious corner booth with a great view of the entire room. I ordered a glass of wine, perused the Restaurant Week menu (which had some additions and changes from the version posted online), and told my server which options I’d like from the first course and entrée selections. I was torn between the two dessert offerings and hoped that if I was lucky enough to meet Megan I could ask her about them – a question that surely wouldn’t be prohibited by that Bravo contract.
raising bees on the rooftop of the hotel and did their first honey harvest a few days later.)
Megan’s breads were served with this trio of stellar accompaniments: Paquillo pepper pesto made with garlic and almonds; an herb and garlic infused olive oil, and a thick European butter with topped with Maldon salt. Paquillo pepper is one of my favorite things, and this romesco-style dipping sauce was a delight.
Next up: this delightful amuse-bouche – a savory custard served in an egg shell with crème fraiche, chives, truffle oil, and dried local corn. The custard was cooked perfectly, and the other components added to the inviting decadence of this creamy opener.
My taste buds were piqued and ready for the Tuna Tonnato first course I’d ordered. But as my server set my second plate before me, I was in for a surprise, this stuffed squash blossom!.
I developed serious foodie lust for stuffed squash blossoms last summer, after reading lots of tempting recipes and gawking over squash blossom food porn. I hadn’t been able to find any to try my hand at until I visited my aunt in California last fall and spied some in her garden. That attempt turned out reasonably well for this home cook on my first try (the flowers are very delicate and tricky to work with). But the burrata and anchovy filling in Orchids’ tempura-battered blossoms and the skill with which they were fried showed me what can be done with them in the hands of a pro.
Not just one amuse, but two. I don’t frequent fine-dining restaurants as often as I wish I could, but this was new for me. Meanwhile, time was ticking away, so, basking in stuffed squash-blossom afterglow, I asked one of my servers if she would let Chef Ketover know I was there. My hope was that if I asked early enough, before the dinner and dessert rush, Megan might be able to find time to “pop out” and meet me in the dining room for a few minutes.
Served next was my “first” course, the Tuna Tonnato. Crisp haricot verts and garlic chips contrasted with the moist, succulent sashimi-grade tuna cooked sous vide. Tomato confit, kalamata olives, and the creamy tonnato sauce underneath brightened the dish and pulled it all together.
As I savored this dish, my hopes were answered when Megan stopped by my table. Warm, genuine, and down to earth, she is Top Chef: Just Desserts contender any Cincinnati fan of the show can happily root for. I was cautious about asking too much about the show, but she did give me a baker’s tour of the three selections on my bread plate. When I asked which of the featured desserts she would recommend – “unless that’s like asking you to pick your favorite child” – she described both the “chocolate option” and the “non-chocolate option” in detail, saying she finds two-thirds of customers opt for chocolate, while she herself prefers the non-chocolate side. (You can find more of my conversation with Megan on ATC here.) I didn’t want to keep her too long during service, and thanked her for her time. She completely won me over, and I must have been grinning from ear to ear as I finished my tuna and looked forward to my entrée of pork cheeks.
However, this whimsical plate was set before me instead. “The chef wanted you to taste his new heirloom tomato salad,” explained my server.
This was another of the first course options for Restaurant Week, described on the menu as Heirloom Tomato Salad with House Made Mozzarella, Tomato Gelée, Fennel Lavosh and Mizuna, and I had wrestled with the decision to forgo it in favor of the Tuna Tonnato. The menu didn’t mention that the mozzarella was not only house-made but also inflated into a balloon. I’ve read about this preparation elsewhere (it’s one Thomas Keller has done at the French Laundry), but had never had an opportunity to try it. What fun to pierce that delicate dairy balloon and watch it deflate while the crunchy teetertotter of lavosh, over tiny skinned heirloom tomatoes, remained in place. (It didn’t occur to me until later that the lavosh crisp was likely Megan’s creation as well.)
Among many things I appreciated about the top-notch service I received that evening was the delicate choreography between back of house and front of house. I appreciate a menu written with enough detail to provide a fair idea of what to expect as I decide what to order, without going into volumes about every element (and its source) in a complex dish. On the other hand, I am very interested in those details. The fellow who served the majority of my plates did a superb job of explaining what I was about to eat in a way that enhanced my appreciation of each dish without coming across as condescending or designed to impress.
It was also at this point in the evening that it finally sank in that not only was I dining at a place with the well-deserved reputation of being the best restaurant in town, I was probably receiving extra attention as a blogger interested in supporting Megan. “The chef would like you to taste this” had been used earlier in the evening in connection with my two amuses, but it was clearly more than a standard line used by well-trained front-of-house staff accustomed to delivering gracious service. By now I’d also been served two amuses and two “first” courses, although I’d walked in the door looking forward to just three courses total from the Restaurant Week menu, and the possibility of meeting Megan. For a moment I worried about the blogger ethics of receiving such treatment. But I was so won over by every morsel I’d tasted and every bit of stellar service I’d received that I decided I’d be a fool not to succumb to this once-in-a-lifetime experience.
My belly was pretty full by this point, having cleaned every plate set before me, except my bread plate (sorry, Megan). When my server asked if I was done with the bread, I didn’t quite hear what she said. I was sorry to bid those breads good-bye, but I needed to preserve my appetite to taste one of Megan’s desserts. The time had come to make my selection. As tempted as I was by the chocolate option, I elected to go with her preference from the non-chocolate side: Brown Butter Cake with Cinnamon Toast Ice Cream, Bourdon Blackberries, and Crispy Vanilla Tuile.
But I was in for another surprise when this stunning plate of Megan's Malted Chocolate Bavarian with Roasted Bananas, Peanut Streusel, and Dolce de Leche arrived instead.
“Megan wanted you to try both and thought the other would travel better,” said my server.
I was thankful to be able to taste Megan’s Brown Butter Cake at a later time, especially as full as I was. (You can read more about it, and my conversation with Megan, on AllTopChef.) But I couldn’t resist these mignardises that arrived with my check: dark chocolate and pistachio truffles, caramel hazelnut french macarons, and blackberry pate de fruit.
My deepest thanks to everyone at Orchids who gave me an experience that went beyond my wildest imaginings. And in case you can’t tell, I will be shamelessly rooting for Megan Ketover on Top Chef: Just Desserts!