Note: The Orchard closed in June 2011. The owners will “regroup and decide what to do with the space.”
Frank Bruni has taken a lot of heat for his procession of two-star neighborhood restaurants, but I have to admit that his review of The Orchard caught my eye. After a succession of high-end meals, my friend and I were in the mood for something a bit more casual, so last weekend we decided to check out The Orchard.
The Lower East Side has become a dining and bar-hopping destination. Five or ten years ago, the idea of any respectable nightlife in the neighborhood seemed absurd. Now, the local community board has decided that perhaps it was too much of a good thing, and new establishments have been struggling to get liquor licenses approved. With carousers hanging out on the local sidewalks, you can see why they are concerned.
There was no reason for The Orchard, a refined restaurant by LES standards, to be caught up in this political battle, but it was. At the time of the Bruni review, it didn’t yet have a liquor license. As of last weekend it still didn’t, although Florence Fabricant has reported in the Times that The Orchard will start serving drinks in September, nine months after it opened.
The night we visited, most diners seemed to be well aware that Orchard was BYOB, and the restaurant was doing a brisk business in spite of it. If anything, it was a bit of fun to pick up a bottle of chianti for $35 that the restaurant would have sold for twice that much. The restaurant, of course, is losing losing the income that comes from a liquor menu, but all that will change in September.
The food is Italian-inspired, but as Bruni noted, it nods at other cuisines as well. The menu is in three parts. Flatbreads ($11–13) are like rectangular pizzas with crisp, paper-thin dough. The toppings, however, are distinctly un-pizza-like. A steak tartare flatbread is seasoned with creamy dijon potatoes, wild arugula, and shaved parmesan. Another was topped with humas and Middle Eastern spices. Each one comes pre-sliced into six rectangular pieces, and is perfect for sharing.
Since we had two of the flatbreads, we skipped the appetizers ($11–18) and went straight to the main courses ($21–32). There’s a variety of fish and meat dishes, but it so happened we both chose pasta: the smoked salmon ravioli ($24) for me, the cavatelli with crispy panceta, diced avocado, and fresh herbs in a tomato-cream sauce ($27) for my friend. Both were fresh, creative, and flavorful. A home-made bread service with creamy-soft butter was also memorable.
The décor is delightful for the neighborhood, with blonde woods and subtle recessed lighting sconces. Rows of bottled water are displayed on the shelves, which presumably will be replaced with wine as soon as they are able.
We were mightily pleased with The Orchard, and obviously so are a lot of other people. Our server unceremoniously dropped off the check before we asked for it (though we were about ready to leave anyway). Other service issues need to be resolved, too. As of now, the restaurant has coffee, but not espresso or capuccino, an extremely odd omission for an Italian restaurant of this calibre.
On the whole, though, The Orchard is doing a superb job at its price point. I would happily go back.
The Orchard (162 Orchard St. between Rivington & Stanton Streets, Lower East Side)