Wine Meets Thai & Oh-boy Khao Soi.
“Sorry, did you get a spray tan? New highlights? Botox? I give up. You what? You got gold Grillz? Wow, sorry baby, I didn’t notice. They look great. I really am sorry. You know work’s been a bear. No, no – I love them.”
It’s a funny thing about long term relationships: Time, habit and an overabundance of familiarity can blind you to change in the ones you love.
Orchid Thai has long been the spot I go to spend time with my unwavering love, my rock — Crispy Duck with Basil Sauce. I’m a slave to it. When slathering the plate with prik nam pla and anticipating the first bite, the world goes away. Woe be upon my dining companions. There shall be two topics of table conversation: How do I eat all of this and how do I get more?
For years, I’ve walked into Orchid Thai with blinders on, eaten my duck, and walked out wrapped in a security blanket of certainty. So, when the old ball and chain decided to do something different, it went unnoticed. Count me in the camp that was blindsided by the fact that Orchid Thai had added a sexy new toy to its Park Avenue boudoir.
If you live in Winter Park or visit on occasion you’ll eventually find your way to Orchid Thai. It has a certain gravity; One that comes from years of solid cooking and a loyal, local following. The Manatad family has been a scratch kitchen before scratch kitchens became scratch kitchens. They spare no effort in ensuring that every detail of every plate has been thoughtfully considered. I’ve eaten at their restaurant countless times, and although there have been occasional duds (they struggled mightily while opening their second location in Heathrow), their creative, well prepared Thai food has fueled a lasting popularity.
Favorites are favorites because they’re consistent. There’s comfort in knowing what you’re going to get. And consistency pays the bills; It keeps customers coming back. But consistency is only sexy to accountants. This is why I was a bit giddy when Go-Kart Romeo told me that Orchid Thai had introduced a Chef’s Table; a spice-things-up experience wherein eaters can indulge in unique, off-menu dishes spread across a six-course meal. It’s like being told that after 20 years of marriage, that oft thought of three-way is finally going to happen. So, we booked. A six-way. It was myself, Munch, Go-Kart, and three other eaters. When booking, we were also given the option of pairing each course with a wine selected and presented to us by a local vino expert. Opt. Opt. Joy. Joy.
Ok, go time: Course one was blue crab, chestnut, and bean curd wrapped in tofu skin. I’m a big fan of tofu skin; its literal and figurative flexibility makes it a wonderful freezer staple. Although a bit tricky, I recently turned it into noodles in our Orlando Eats kitchen, and when fried? Divine. These little bites were gorgeous, the chestnut providing a crunch that took them over the top.
This was followed by minced pork, shrimp, shiitake mushroom, white peppercorn, and coriander root topped with a crisp latticed egg net. Ooh mommy, umami. Gobble, gobble, gone.
Shrimp in nam prik pao, tamarind, citrus juices, and banana flower was beautifully plated and as fresh as could be. I’ve always loved the interplay of seafood, citrus, herb and spice. This was so clean tasting that it almost worked as a sorbet.
These first three dishes proved kindling for the fire. They were consumed in a flash, the wine was flowing, and our table was as content as Buddha in Bangkok. Then, pow. Khao Soi.
For starters, the bowl of egg noodles with chili, pickled mustard greens, and chicken drum was just lovely to ponder. Topped with an edible purple orchid and a prawn wrapped in crunchy fried noodles, it was a visually inventive take on the time tested Northern Thai staple. I know that Khao Soi has managed to make a name for itself locally – a darling of the popup set – but nothing I’ve tried has a leg up on Orchid Thai’s version. The flavor of the broth was so unbelievably deep I thought it would start quoting Kant. A single sip and all brain activity ceased for 30 seconds. Lots of grunting and nods of approval. Khao Soi is a dish that takes time to make and a great deal of time to make well. We were told that Manatad family matriarch, Sue, had personally overseen the fairly laborious process – the results were well worth it.
Khao Soi was a turning point in our meal; A sign that more substantial plates were on deck. Seared duck in chili curry with lychee appeared next. You now know I love duck. I also love chili. And curry? Love it in all its various permutations. Lychee? Not so much. I find it delicious on its own or in combo with sweet or herbal, but don’t want it holding hands with savory. Yes, it’s a personal preference. The same genetic hiccup that makes a Waldorf Salad look like a murder scene to me. Grapes are meant to be dropped into mouths by laurel leaved lovelies or mashed into wine, not placed anywhere in the vicinity of perfectly good walnuts. Not necessarily as a result of the shotgun-riding lychees, but this was my least favorite dish of the evening. There was a bit of table debate, but I found its pronounced sweetness made it far too single note.
On the other hand, Maine lobster wok fried in karee had the entire table reeling with praise (karee is Thai for yellow curry). It felt indulgent because it was. Munch was swooning, Go-Kart Romeo was doing a happy dance, and I was just trying to slow the flow of drool. A stellar way to end the savories.
Black sticky rice and taro in coconut milk was served for dessert and although a finely rendered exercise in layered subtlety and textural feel-goodliness, I found it a stodgy way to end a meal that had already seen us eat a good deal of rice. This doesn’t mean it went uneaten or unenjoyed.
I was a wine guy for many years. Some wine guys carry a rulebook that states that Thai food should be paired with something off-dry like a Riesling or Gewürztraminer. It plays well with the spice. I’ve always been a bit more laissez faire, but the above remains fairly foolproof guidance. And, yes, we quickly got our Gewürtz on. Starter wines included a 2012 Helfrich Steinklotz Grand Cru (Alsace) and a peachy, citrusy 2016 Kettmeir Müller Thurgau (Alto Adige) from Northern Italy. Although the Gewürtz tasted slightly post-peak, both worked exceptionally well with the initial courses, as did a Galician Albariño from Don Olegario (2015).
The more unusual pairings included a Barda Pinot Noir from Patagonia (Argentina) and a fantastic Michele Chiarlo 2013 Reyna (Barbaresco) – loaded with tart cherry fruit and rose.
A Chateau d’Arche ’07 Sauternes made sweet, sweet love to the sticky black rice and taro. I think I heard the taro whisper, ‘you complete me.’ I honestly would have eaten a bite or two without the Sauterne. With it, I cleaned my plate, which was a bowl.
This was a parade of seriously good juice. To say we were pleasantly surprised would not be an understatement, it would be wrong. We were incredibly impressed with the diversity of selection, and – in the end – each wine’s ability to bring out the best in each dish with which it was served. I never would’ve thought to pair Barbaresco with Thai food, and I never would’ve imagined that Patagonia has a Pinot Noir producer. Kudos to our wine guy (who will remain anonymous) and the Manatads for taking the pairings far more seriously than most other restaurants would.
All in all, the Orchid Thai Chef’s Table makes for a wonderful evening. If you’ve never been to Orchid Thai, you should give them a try – especially when the weather’s right. They’re located on the quiet, northern end of Park Avenue so al fresco sidewalk dining is a treat during cooler months. If you’ve been to Orchid Thai but never knew they have a Chef’s Table, it’s entirely excusable. It’s easy to get blinded by classic faves like their beef jerky with sticky rice or softshell crab with mango. There’s also no mention of the Chef’s Table on their website, so word-of-mouth seems to be the Manatads’ principal way of marketing it. If you’re interested, ye olde telephone is the best way to coordinate.
Finally, a quick apology for the quality of some of the photos in the gallery below – with hands flying and mouths chomping, it was like taking snaps in the middle of a drunken rugby scrum. A delicious, drunken rugby scrum.