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Eat the foods of the Orient in one stop

August 17, 2008|By OMNI VORE

My college-aged niece, Sarah, considered eating an adventure, so she was excited to share a recent lunch at Orchid Garden, a new pan-Asian resturant near Valley Mall in Hagerstown.

"I hope they have green tea ice cream," she said.

If she were willing to try green tea ice cream, I thought this augured well for experiments in eating.

Opened since May in the former Applebee's on Wesel Boulevard, Orchid Garden was a quick escape to the Orient. Bamboo and intricate wallpaper lined the walls. Carved woodwork also decorated the dining room as well as a soothing fish tank near the rear of the restaurant. An image of the restaurant's namesake, orchids, was etched in glass. A real orchid stood on the hostess' table.

The center of the restaurant was a square bar where wine, beer, soft drinks and mixed drinks were served. To the right was a sushi bar. There were tables and benches around the outer walls of the restaurant.

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After being seated, we noticed that the restaurant's menu was divided into the geography of the Orient: China, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam and Japan. We studied the offerings carefully.

Not familiar with some segments of Asian food, we had to be schooled on the dishes. My niece turned to the waitress to ask the difference between sushi and sashimi. Sushi was vinegared rice topped with other ingredients, typically raw fish, and she pointed to the picture of salmon sushi on the menu. Sashimi was the raw fish itself, sliced thinly and arranged artfully.

We chose the California rolls, which have cooked imitation crabmeat. Neither of us were willing to venture into the area of raw fish.

On the appetizer section of the menu, I saw gyoza and read the italic print: Japanese pork dumpling. I have always thought of gyoza as Chinese, but it seems these little meat packages have a wide appeal. I had sweet memories of gyoza I ate long ago in San Francisco.

My niece found the lunch specials on the back page and ordered sesame chicken. I ordered bulgoki, a grilled Korean marinated beef.

I was served a bowl of miso soup. Sarah had never tasted miso soup before. She took a sip of mine.

"It tastes like smoked salmon," she said.

Miso, a dark paste made from fermented soybeans, does not ordinarily taste like fish. Miso soup is usually a clear broth with pieces of scallions and tofu. But this soup also had seaweed in it and the scent of the sea was unmistakable. I liked it very much, but my niece was content with one bite.

Next we tasted my salad. "I love the dressing," said my niece. "What makes the salad dressing so good?" I asked the waitress. "Ginger," she said. "Sesame," I thought. "Garlic," said Sarah. A mystery in the end, but delicious.

We turned our attention to the steaming hot spring roll that accompanied Sarah's sesame chicken. It was fried, crispy and hot, and served with a sweet and tangy duck sauce. My niece cut the roll in half and we both savored it.

As served, our California roll was cut into six segments. Nori (dried seaweed) had been wrapped around a sticky white rice and a center filling of cucumber, imitation crabmeat and avocado. The California roll was served with pink pickled ginger slices and green wasabi, which is a fiery Japanese horseradish. The California roll slices were topped with orange-colored masago, which are fish eggs of the capelin. I expected Sarah to reject it.

"Yum," she said. "It is so pretty. It enhances the presentation."

Wow! Omni Vore had found a food companion. We both loved the California roll and scarfed it down quickly.

We were not as sure of the gyoza. My niece is not fond of ground pork. We put them aside to take home.

The main courses arrived. My bulgoki was served on a cast iron plate embedded on a wooden plate. The grilled beef was accompanied by a generous mound of rice, broccoli, sliced onions, mushrooms and asparagus. The marinade was mild and not too salty. I missed the kimchi, a traditional Korean relish made of very hot, very salty, pickled cabbage.

My niece's sesame chicken was delicious - deepfried chicken chunks in a sweet sauce. Broccoli was the side vegetable beside a huge mound of rice. Sarah was pleased at the portion size.

Our waitress served jasmine tea and brought the bill and two fortune cookies. But we weren't finished; we wanted ice cream.

Green tea ice cream was on the menu but Sarah had seen another option. "I'll try the red bean ice cream," she said. "Mochi ice cream," responded the waitress.

"Do you think we could have another fortune cookie, too?" I asked. "My niece's fortune was not very good."

She came back with a final bill for $32.44, a good cookie with an auspicious fortune and an ice cream dessert that was divine. The unusual pink ice cream was encased in a little rice pastry shell. Whipped cream and maraschino cherries anchored the end. Chocolate sauce was drizzled over all.

"It's not too sweet - refreshing after the meal. The texture is not what you would expect," Sarah said. "I like it."

My niece decided if someone wanted to try a variety of Asian dishes, then this would be the place to eat. I have to agree.

Orchid Garden



4 (out of 5)

Food: 4 stars

Service: 4 stars

Ambiance: 4 stars

Value: 4 stars

Address: 1481 Wesel Blvd., Hagerstown.

Hours: 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; and 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Sunday. (The kitchen is closed from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.)

Phone: 301-665-1666; 301-665-1333

Style: Pan Asian

Range: Lunch specials from $6.50 to $8.95; dinner prices range from $8.95 for phat thai to $23.95 for Peking duck.

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