Herbal essences

L’Orchid Authentic Viet Cuisine

2100 Arden Way #205
Sacramento, CA 95825

(916) 921-1887

It is possible that there is a sillier name for a shopping center than Howe ’bout Arden, but I kind of doubt it. I shy away from businesses there a bit, just because the name seems so ridiculous, but now that L’Orchid—a Vietnamese restaurant formerly located in the far reaches of Orangevale—has moved there, that is about to change.

L’Orchid occupies an upstairs space. Formerly home to Zigato’s Bar and Grill (which has reopened elsewhere), it seems unlikely to get much casual walk-in traffic. It’s well worth going out of your way to visit, however. In ambience and the niceties of service, as well as in its menu’s scope, L’Orchid is a step up from the casual and often excellent Vietnamese noodle shops that now proliferate around Sacramento.

That’s not to say the ambience is perfect. I would actually like it better if the restaurant kept its bamboo shades down, rather than exposing its unromantic view of McDonald’s, Starbucks and the like (though I can understand that the owners might want potential guests below to see diners in the windows). Little touches like pretty marbled-wood chopsticks, tropical-looking ceiling fans and lovely rectangular ceramic dishes lent a rather upscale feel.

The service, however, is very good indeed: attentive, helpful and enthusiastic without veering into intrusiveness. It’s a fine line to walk, especially because there is a significant tutorial role the servers have to perform. Many of the dishes are served family-style, with rice paper to make your own rolls from meat or seafood and piles of herbs and vegetables. The servers have developed a practiced demo that instructs diners who show the least bit of hesitation how to soak two little rice papers at the same time; place them on the rolling plate; and add lettuce, herbs, pickled lemongrass, carrots, daikon, cucumber, rice noodles, and meat or seafood.

It’s a lot of fun, and these shared dishes would make L’Orchid a great place to go with a group for a birthday dinner or another celebration. The table next to ours had ordered the signature whole catfish (it looked wonderful, but far too big for two), and the large party was eagerly passing it around.

Even more fun, you can get the meat simply marinated and ready for grilling over your own little flame and hot plate. We got the combination plate, with super-thin-sliced beef, tender cross-cut calamari and shrimp, all flavored by a powerful lemongrass marinade. On their own, the grilled items were a touch too strongly redolent of citronella, but the marinade’s flavor was perfectly balanced by the clean, almost medicinal notes of the accompanying herbs: mint, cilantro and rau ram (listed on the menu as “Vietnamese colander”).

The same trio of herbs was featured with another dish, banh xeo, a huge, golden, crispy, fried crepe of rice flour and coconut stuffed with onions, sliced pork, shrimp and bean sprouts. (It’s golden on the inside as well but contains no eggs.) Crunchy and a touch oily on the outside and super-moist and soft within, it was also delicious with the fresh herbs and a light nuoc cham dipping sauce.

Rau ram alone was the star with the elegant appetizer of broiled mussels we started with. The plump, exceptionally meaty mussels were presented on the half-shell, with a sprinkling of peanuts; an accompanying plate of the fresh, bracing herb; tiny seafood forks; and two sauces for dressing them up, one sweetly caramelized and one pungently hot with chili. I sometimes find mussels a little too chewy and musky-fishy, but these were wonderful, with a clean, briny taste of the sea.

We thought all of this might be plenty but asked our server if there was anything else on the menu we shouldn’t miss. He unhesitatingly recommended the clay-pot rice, a savory, homey dish of garlicky rice studded liberally with shrimp, pineapple chunks and slices of equally garlicky pork. I was skeptical about the pineapple, but it added a lovely sweet and astringent hit that balanced the pork. (It was also, as our server had predicted, great for lunch the next day.)

We had to ask to get the short wine list. There was a Riesling, which went well with the food, as well as a sauvignon blanc with tropical-fruit notes that I enjoyed, particularly with the mussels. I’d love to see L’Orchid expand its wine list and step up the service a bit to match the quality of the food, though. Similarly, the simple sorbet-dominated dessert menu could be more ambitious. Though the lightly sweet notes of the rice crepe and the clay-pot rice left us feeling no need for a sweeter ending, we might have taken the plunge if the offerings had been more exciting. Such concerns are mere quibbles, however—much like my curmudgeonly objection to the shopping-center locale. In truth, I’m delighted that L’Orchid has moved to a more central location, and it’s to be hoped that plenty of Sacramentans will seek out its fresh, delightful cooking.