Orchid’s Jamaican-American Restaurant, 1113 State St., Schenectady, 952-7182, checkoutorchids.com. Serving 11 AM-10 PM Sun-Thu, 11 AM-2 AM Fri-Sat. MC, V.
Entrée price range:$6 (chicken with roti) to $15 (snapper with callaloo)
For three years, Orchid’s was tucked into the side of a convenience store-gas station complex on Schenectady’s Altamont Avenue. As the tiny business attracted more and more attention, chef-owner Rose Marie Coleman (her nickname is Orchid) vowed to get into a larger, more accessible space.
This she has now done, occupying a space that’s comically huge at the corner of State Street and Brandywine Avenue. It’s been home to many, many businesses over the years, most recently Fratello’s Restaurant and Bella Italiano, but longtime Schenectadians may remember it as Marcell’s, the Gourmet and the Powhatan. And even, for a while, as the home of the Loyal Order of Moose.
A needed makeover has brightened the outside of the place, while the layout inside recalls the building’s nightclub days. The dining room has different levels and signs of a dance floor. The bar is huge, with a semicircular stage behind it, the provenance of which I’d as soon not guess. The place is comfortable, but it’s easy to feel a little lost when it’s not too crowded. But the staff works to keep you happy. Or to put it more accurately, the servers are enjoying themselves and don’t mind sharing those good feelings. There’s a family sense about the place. And, I’m guessing, all are enjoying the thrill of finally having a real restaurant around them.
Orchid’s quietly opened its new doors many weeks ago, finishing the decor, figuring out kitchen logistics, reminding the following of loyal customers of the improved location. The official ribbon-cutting just took place. It’s going to become one of your favorite places.
At the heart of the menu are preparations of chicken, goat and seafood, available in two sizes. Chicken, that most culinarily versatile of creatures, comes curried, jerk-seasoned, fried or in stew for $8 or $10. Jerk-seasoned wings are five for $6.50, 10 for $9. The dinners include two side dishes, one of which can be peas and rice, vegetable fried rice or white rice; the other steamed cabbage, collard greens or a side salad.
Jerk chicken is one of the dishes that defines this style of cooking. The meat is seasoned with a mixture heavy on the allspice, enough to delay the inexorable spread of the hot pepper that follows. Were I forced to define American dining in one phrase, it would be, “Is it spicy?” spoken with a whiny inflection. We profess to live in fear of our food (even as we gobble fat-saturated, GMO-ridden stuff) and shy away from excellent fare that other cultures thrive on. So: Yes, the jerk chicken is spicy, I’m delighted to report, and if you haven’t the courage to sample it, go home and hide behind your Wonder Bread. It’s the only one of Coleman’s dishes that packs any kind of a kick, but the flavors that inform the other stuff are just as complex, like a succession of emotionally charged songs. Perhaps it’s the Bob Marley influence. Coleman was born in Trenchtown, where Marley lived, and her mother cooked for the iconic performer.
Back to the menu: Stew beef and oxtail come in $9 and $11 portions, and you especially don’t want to miss the latter, which, although it requires some digging to liberate meat from bone, rewards you with a rich, fatty flavor and a dark sauce to match.
Curried goat? Oh, for crying out loud, just try it. It’s not even an acquired taste: It’s terrific right off the bat, good enough to make you wonder why the meat isn’t more readily available.
In the seafood realm, tilapia or king slice (king mackerel) is $8 or $10; lemon fish (cobia) or shrimp (curried or fried) is $9 or $10. Snapper, stuffed with callaloo, is $15. Preparation options include fried, steamed, stewed and more. Ackee and saltfish ($11) is termed Jamaica’s national dish, and it’s a combination of salt cod and what’s known in Mutiny on the Bounty as breadfruit—and it was Mutiny’s Captain Bligh who first carried the stuff to England for identification.
Beef, chicken (jerk or plain) or vegetable patties ($1.85) are delicious four-bite morsels in a flavorful, flaky crust. Jerk chicken salad is $6, while a plain tossed salad is $4.50. When it’s available, don’t miss the baked mac and cheese, a $2.50 side order.
Six-dollar lunch specials (available weekdays from 11 to 2) include duck, five preparations of chicken (jerk, curried, stew, et. al.), oxtail, curried goat, vegetable lo mein and more.
Look around as you settle in at your table or booth. What began as someone’s misguided idea of fancy now wears a more fittingly casual aspect. Think of it not so much as the kind of restaurant where you challenge the place to please you but rather as a kitchen into which you’ve been invited, where what’s most important is that you’re happy and well-fed. For example: On a recent visit, I noted that the chicken wasn’t as falling-off-the-bone as I’d enjoyed in the previous location. Mentioning this to the server immediately brought Coleman from the kitchen, who explained that her new kitchen allows her to grill the meat, so she’s been trying it that way. “But if you want it the other way, I’ll do it for you right now!”
No, no, I protested. I still enjoyed it—very much. But I’m delighted to know I have those options. I’m going to use them.