Should you be standing in the parking lot of The Orchard House on a blustery fall night after the sun has dipped back below the horizon, it's important--as you take in the low-slung adobe building--to remember the old adage about judging books by their covers.
Step beneath the bare grape vines that wrap around a sturdy wood entry way covering, and inside, the scene is a storybook combination of grandma's kitchen, quaint mountain town cafe and warm log cabin. Deli cases, homemade pastries and a coffee menu vie for space with shelves spilling with locally produced jams, mustards and popcorn, and Orchard House T-shirts and caps. Down a few steps to the dining room, stained concrete floors give rise to walls layered in lacquered blond wood and a stamped tin ceiling.
"Mele Kalikimaka" set a Christmas soundtrack; pumpkins in the window invoked late fall; the winter wonderland light show being erected outside beckoned snow. It was a setting missing only a roaring fire and hot mugs of cider.
It was love at first sight. If only the spell had been cast upon the food, as well.
We feasted: a trio of appetizers ($11.95), a cup of corn chowder, one house salad, a plate of chicken-fried steak with country gravy and parmesan red potatoes ($12.95), a burger so audacious it was named after the restaurant ($9.95), a side of flat finger-long tater tots, and one slice of Dutch apple pie. Best in show proved to be the finale, which we carted home and decided that it nicely paired pucker-tart apples with a thick dusting of sugared crumb topping. In a close second were two logs of hand-breaded, fried mozzarella from the starting trio. A third standout, unfortunately so, was a pale platter of peppery chicken-fried steak. Although the utter lack of presentation detracted from its appeal, ultimately it was the bone-dry reheated potatoes that forced us to push aside the dish after a few bites. The flavor of the namesake burger--topped with cheese, ham and a fried egg--was average but reeked of flattop, an effect avoidable with the aid of open flame on the beef. A comparison of chicken on the app trio at least ended in a draw. Bacon and flavorless chicken quesadilla triangles undoubtedly needed the kick of house-made pico de gallo, while bone-in hot wings were nicely kissed with ubiquitous Frank's, rather than slathered in the hot sauce as some joints insist.
Given its location on the fringe of wine country, it's reasonable to expect the usual clientele is looking for exactly what Orchard House offers: affordable food without bells and whistles. But in order to attract serious attention from the capital city crowd making a long drive, Orchard House is going to have to rely on more than just its looks.
--Rachael Daigle knows the thing to say on a bright Hawaiian Christmas Day.