Review: Blue Orchid
If only every new restaurant in Lincoln were half as good as Blue Orchid.
Blue Orchid is a new Thai restaurant in Federal Place (aka “Old Fed") in Downtown Lincoln owned by UNL professor Witawas Srisa-an and his wife Malinee Kiatathikom. The couple had previously operated a restaurant in Chicago. Clearly Srisa-an and Kiatathikom learned well from that experience. I stopped by Blue Orchid for lunch twice over two weeks. I was joined by the same dining companion both times. He has traveled extensively and has even spent time in Thailand, so his knowledge was extremely helpful to me as I prepared this review.
The restaurant is located at the rear of the newly remodeled Federal Place, and it fits in wonderfully. Blue Orchid exudes a subdued but warm elegance, with minimal yet ample art and decorations throughout. The interior is light and airy, thanks largely to the high ceiling and large, southern windows. The napkins are cloth, the glasses are brilliant blue, and the plates are quadrangular. They even got the silverware right. It is, as many have been quick to point out, a touch of urban sophistication in wee little Lincoln. Indeed, the only black mark on Blue Orchid’s stellar atmosphere is the entrance. The main entrance is just off a small, but very un-downtownish parking lot, and customers have to walk through that parking lot—rather than on a sidewalk—to enter. It may be a petty peeve of mine, but I don’t like pedestrians having to use pathways designed for cars. A landscaped pedestrian path would have been simple to add.
The service at Blue Orchid is its weak point right now. The problem starts at the front door. There doesn’t seem to be a designated greeter, nor does there seem to be a consistent policy designating which employee(s) should greet customers, and how they should do so. The result is that at busy times there can be a bit of a logjam at the door that is distasteful both for those waiting, and for those who have been seated near the entrance. There is also not a system for keeping track of which customer should be seated next, which means customers are on the honor system when keeping track of their seating order. It’s very awkward.
Fortunately, table service is much more organized, though there remains room for improvement. Waiters are, for the most part, prompt, and during my visits they were universally curteous. When asked for opinions about dishes our servers were able to answer genuinely, if briefly. The waiters seemed to have a general understanding of the dishes on the menu, but as the restaurant matures I hope to see its waiters gain even more knowledge about the various dishes. The servers present the food well when it arrives at the table, with one exception: why do they place my bowl of soup so far away from me? Both of our servers placed our bowls at arms length, rather than directly in front of us. Curious, and a bit annoying. Our waiters did a good job of clearing away empty plates. On both trips my dining companion and I never felt rushed, and yet we were easily in and out in an hour, which is crucial for the Downtown lunch crowd.
Blue Orchid’s prices are typical, if not a tad low, for an upscale restaurant in Lincoln. Dinner entree prices range from about $7.00 to the mid teens. Lunch at Blue Orchid is a great deal. For $7.95 you receive an appetizer (Thai rolls or spring rolls), soup (Tom Kha or Tom Yum), and an entree. The Thai rolls—my preference—are small deep-fried spring rolls served with a very complementary sweet and sour dipping sauce. They can be ordered with chicken and vegetables, or just vegetables. The spring rolls are filled with chicken or tofu. The soups have a strange and foreign taste to this midwestern tongue, but that wasn’t unexpected for somebody who grew up on Campbell’s. I prefer the creamy Tom Kha to the spicy Tom Yum, as did my dining companion, but both made for a delicious prelude to the entree that would follow.
Blue Orchid’s entrees are its real strength. The majority of the dishes are not “authentic” in the sense that they perfectly replicate what one would find in Thailand. Rather, they are mostly based on Thai classics and infused with American influence. Most dishes can be ordered vegetarian, with tofu, or with chicken, beef, shrimp (extra charge), or pork. We ordered four different entrees on our two trips. I went with the Panang Curry and Basil Mania. My dining companion tried the Yellow Curry and the Orchid Chicken. The Panang Curry was incredible, and surprisingly spicy. It was a large plate of coconut milk, curry, and kaffir lime leaves, served with rice. The Basil Mania, despite the awful name, was a treat. It featured a brown sauce with onions, green peppers, and basil, and it too was served with rice. My companion enjoyed his Yellow Curry, but he really raved about the Orchid Chicken. He noted that is was similar to “Gai Phat Met Mamuang” (pan-fried chicken with cashew nuts and onions). However the Orchid Chicken lacked the chiles that typically come with this dish, and added mushrooms and pineapple to give it a nice sweet taste. The dish is, in his words, “a slice of heaven”.
Blue Orchid’s menu does not include dishes from Northeast Thailand, which disappointed my companion. He had hoped he might find Som Tam (green papaya salad with chilies), one of Thailand’s favorite street foods, on the menu. However, several dishes are clearly of deep Southern Thai origins, such as the Satay (on the dinner menu) and Chicken Massaman Curry ("Muslim" curry – coconut milk base with chicken and potatoes).
Blue Orchid is clearly one of Lincoln’s best restaurants. It has great atmosphere, it has great food at great prices, and it has good service. In fact, it is awfully tempting to call the restaurant “near perfect”. I’m not going to do that. Not yet. But Blue Orchid is close. It is an excellent restaurant with a real chance to become Lincoln’s best. I hope it succeeds. And in the mean time, I hope some of Lincoln’s other great restaurants take note and refuse to back down. There’s a new kid in town, and he’s lookin’ pretty good, which can only be good for dining in Lincoln.