Review: New Orphan badly needs to adopt the idea of flavor

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2013 - 1:41 pm
Last Modified: Tuesday, Jul. 22, 2014 - 8:33 pm

Editor's note: This review originally ran in The Sacramento Bee on Nov. 29, 2009.

I thought I once read about an affliction affecting, say, 0.00012 percent of the population whose taste buds are so hypersensitive to flavors that they cannot handle anything, food-wise, more exciting than waxed paper or Wolf Blitzer.

I found the restaurant that will appeal to this woebegone niche.

While it's admirable that a supposedly hip new eatery would reach out to such a minuscule subset of our population, I am part of that pretty healthy majority -- call it vast -- that demands a tad more than wax or Wolf for the most important meal of the day.

Thus, I am hypersensitive to just how short of the mark the food is at Orphan, the oddly named, nicely adorned and smartly painted new breakfast restaurant on the edge of upscale McKinley Park.

The best thing I can say about the place: consistent. The worst? Consistent.

What's the over-under on Orphan? How about undercooked French toast, overdone bacon and under- use of this nifty little spice called salt. And let's not forget gooey, ooey bread.

I know, weird, but I prefer breakfast that actually tastes like bacon and eggs and sausage, like peppers and potatoes and pancakes. Even the oatmeal -- oatmeal -- tasted like my shredded bank statements.

Why would the restaurant critic be writing about breakfast? For one, breakfast is something Sacramento does quite well all over town -- but not really well in very many places. For another, this is a new hot spot, and those words aren't uttered a lot in this economy. Third, it is instructive to see why a place with high ideals can be so underwhelming in its execution.

Apart from Orphan's good (but, alas, flawed) coffee, the only thing I found with a little sizzle and spice was one salty owner, Christopher Pendarvis, a self-described "visionary" who also owns the popular coffee shops -- oops, he insists on "coffeehouses" -- called Naked Lounge and Tupelo.

Four days from his last shave, sporting a ponytail accessorized with bobby pins and wearing baggy, saggy jeans sorely in need of a good cinch, this fellow looked at us when we walked in and then, big oops, turned and walked away, forgetting to say hello or welcome, or, goodness gracious I'm so thankful you're here to spend some money.

Such trivialities and old-fashioned niceties are not beneath the restaurant heavyweights in town. Biba Caggiano, Randall Selland, Patrick Mulvaney and some guy who works for a guy who works for Rick Mahan have all unknowingly stopped by our tables in recent days to say welcome, hello, thank you.

The New York Times just published a list of 100 things restaurants should not do. Failure to welcome guests is a major one.

But that's the least of the problems at Orphan.

To my astonishment, I later found Pendarvis seated in the middle of the dining room saying things that would make my spam filter blush.

I don't want to get all technical and legal on you, but I'm just not sure it's OK to conduct job interviews with customers eating nearby, then proceed to ask an earnest young man A) how old he is (twice), B) if he has a girlfriend and C) if they are, you know, doing it -- or, as our visionary put it before me and others looking up from our eggs, engaging in "carnal knowledge."

I later checked with Pendarvis, who revealed the young man's answer was no -- and that he landed the job. As for the line of questioning, Pendarvis, who said he hated the media and thinks the government is "evil -- OK, maybe 'evil' is a strong word, " said he "likes to test" job applicants with tough questions.

I checked the company's Web site and found the owner's bio: "Chris leverages his fearlessness of obstacles and revels in the potential of solutions to life and business challenges."

It also lists "problem solving" as one of his strengths.

Inspired by this fellow, I have become a self-described visionary, and I would like to share some of the visions I have.

I see empty seats, plenty of them, if Orphan doesn't turn this around. McKinley Park is upscale, very NPR. This is an area that wants a new restaurant, but you can't fool these folks for long. Neither do they want to overhear such off-color job interviews.

I also envision plenty of problems to solve, the biggest one being why the food is so breathtakingly boring. Who cares about carnal knowledge? What about culinary knowledge?

I am not fond of scrambled eggs. Anyone can make them. Yet, scrambled eggs are pretty much the only thing offered at Orphan besides French toast and burritos.

I want a breakfast that's too much trouble to make at home. For instance, I like classic French omelets -- made in a carbon steel pan, with clarified butter, a pinch of salt, a dash of pepper, two forks to curdle the eggs as they cook over high heat, a tilt of the pan, a bump on the handle, and voilà! The eggs roll onto a plate, tender, plump and weeping ever so slightly.

Those are delicious little wonders to behold, and this is how I make my eggs at home. Why would I go out for breakfast and settle for a scrambled glob of egglike thingies?

I like sourdough waffles or Belgian waffles made with yeast. The batters of both need to be started the night before breakfast. I do that on occasion but don't always feel like it. Orphan makes so-called buttermilk pancakes that are clearly from a mix and they are just mediocre.

The rosemary potatoes are the greatest crime. What are they? Are they hash browns? Too soggy. Pommes Anna? No way. They're ill-fated, mushy masses offensive in their blandness, and yet, they're the featured attraction, practically the signature dish, throughout the menu.

Potatoes need salt in the cooking to build flavor. And these are the wrong kind of potatoes. They're not holding together the way a good Yukon gold or red bliss does.

Isn't somebody tasting these things before they leave the kitchen? Can't somebody back there tell that these have the consistency of paste used for papier mâche?

French toast? There was hardly any egg used to soak into the bread. The bread had not been baked all the way through. And, while the slices were pleasingly thick, they were improperly cooked, thus drab in the center. They need to start in the pan and finish in the oven.

The breakfast burrito, with egg, taste-free black beans and, yes, those potatoes that now give me double vision, continued the trend, appealing to that 0.00012 crowd. The only thing that gave them flavor was the scrawny sausage I requested at extra cost. Thank you Jimmy Dean.

The coffee was good to very good. But the cups were too wide and too shallow, meaning the coffee got cold too soon. Orphan should get taller cups that hold in the heat.

If I sound like a self- described short-lived customer, that's the vision I'm having. But for the 0.00012 out there, I give this place my heartiest endorsement.

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Read more articles by Blair Anthony Robertson

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