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Dining out

Stellar fare lives up to lofty tab

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May 18, 2008

Black Orchid Grille

8 Temple St., Nashua

Open for lunch Tuesday to Friday, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner every night except Monday

Major credit cards accepted.

Accessible to the handicapped

blackorchidgrille.com, 603-577-8910

Befitting its more-Boston-than-Nashua prices, the Black Orchid Grille offers exceptional fare and charming ambience. But the service, while good, isn't always quite on a par with the lofty tab.

The Black Orchid feels warm and private despite large windows facing out onto a lightly trafficked side street in downtown Nashua. Softly lit and richly painted, with Parisian and art nouveau touches, the restaurant immediately embraces patrons. The small, low-key bar is nicely integrated: unobtrusive but lending a pleasant buzz to the atmosphere.

Diners are greeted at their tables by small round loaves of crusty fresh bread, accompanied by olive oil spiked with black pepper and herbs. Chilled water arrives in carafes, a nice touch. It's a very promising start, and the courses that follow almost uniformly live up to that promise.

I found it very difficult to choose from among a half-dozen innovative appetizers. The asparagus ravioli ($8) and roasted scallops with artichoke hearts topped with lemon yogurt sauce ($10) both beckoned, but I opted for the saffron risotto fritters ($7).

It was an excellent choice: Calling to mind arancini, an addictive Italian rice-ball delicacy, the fritters boasted a crispy crust around insides creamy with Asiago and Parmesan cheeses. Served with a roasted tomato cream sauce that begged to be licked off the plate, this appetizer alone could have made my night.

The entrees I sampled rivaled the splendor of the risotto fritters. Perhaps most delightful was the eggplant napoleon ($16). The shining star of this ample dish was the thin-sliced eggplant, pan fried to a remarkable degree of crispness without growing oily. Layered with buffalo (milk) mozzarella, fresh basil, ricotta, and chunky tomato sauce, this dish received a full round of thumbs-ups at our table.

Also on the pasta portion of the menu was chicken basilico ($19), ziti tossed with tender chicken medallions, artichoke hearts, and sun-dried tomatoes in a tasty basil cream. The dish proved every bit as hearty and flavorful as it sounds.

The Parmesan-encrusted haddock and scallops ($25), a signature dish, was rich and thoroughly delicious. Rubbed with sour cream and sprinkled with cheese, the fish was moist and beautifully cooked. My only quibble was that the portion was rather small.

A special ($27) featuring John Dory, a mild and firm-fleshed fish caught unexpectedly by the Black Orchid's fisherman off the Rhode Island coast, was exceptional. The velvety, buttery, and very generous filets of fish were served alongside sauteed fennel and artichoke hearts. As a fennel fan, I was happy to see this underappreciated herb on the menu but felt that with a bit more cooking its flavor would have been richer.

Most entrees come with a choice of side dishes that were, in some cases, memorable as well. The green beans in brown butter were simply amazing.

Meals end on a strong note with desserts from the Dutch Epicure Bakery in Amherst, N.H. The ricotta cheesecake with raspberry sauce ($8) was crumbly and airy, a far cry from its typically overdense and leaden brethren. Its richness came primarily from an intense raspberry sauce, so dark and concentrated as to resemble chocolate.

At most restaurants, I would have been happy with the Black Orchid's level of service. However, when entrees rise into the $20-$30 range, I expect something approaching flawless attention to patrons' needs, and in this case I experienced a few too many letdowns.

Once, eager to end a visit that had already lasted nearly two hours, I watched my waiter carefully rearranging silverware on empty tables rather than handling my payment.

On balance, though, the stellar food more than compensates for the occasional service misfires.

STEVE BRADT

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