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Fish and snails and puppy dog tales

13a lemongrass

One evening last week, I was wandering around my home in Russian Market after work, tired, hungry and frustrated. Street food wouldn’t cut it. I felt like something fancy. Then, I stumbled upon L’Orchide – a warm, red-painted eatery heralded by lush trees lit by lanterns. A sign promised Khmer, Vietnamese and French specials, and a boisterous puppy stood in the doorway.
I was sold. The tiny ball of fluff – the kind with hair so shaggy it’s hard to tell which end is which – jumped up and put its paws on me.
L’Orchide smoothly combines comfort and style. Cuddly cats sidled around marble tables, others rested on the terracotta tiles.  It’s the kind of place where groups of jovial Frenchman come to laugh and toast their health with red wine. “A santé!” They looked full-hearted and fuller-bellied.
The hostess guided me to a table, while her husband, Patrice, started reading through the menu, making recommendations. Thanks in part to the owner’s disarming charm, and to my own excitement at finding a place so chic near Russian Market, I ordered everything.
The dumplings – some of the best I have ever tasted – came first. Delicious, crispy on the outside and soft inside – not like the chewy, hard feel of their fried, oil-soaked counterparts. Patrice boils them in water for just a few seconds – it closes their pores so they won’t absorb too much fat and harden in the frying process, he says.

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Shaggy, boisterous Kenzo. Photograph: Scott Howes

I had my suspicions about the crab. I never order crab – it’s too messy for public consumption. But these were worth it. They came in an iron pot, steamed and fried with glass noodles and subtly spiced with lemon grass, chilli and pepper. The crab was juicy, but the noodles, crispy and the fact that they got stuck on the bottom of the pot made for more crispy goodness.
I also never order the ubiquitous fish amok. But at L’Orchide, I went for it – because Patrice said so. Juicy fish pieces complimented by fresh lemon grass came in an elaborately folded banana leaf.
With the fluffy puppy, Kenzo, on my lap, I eagerly awaited the dessert.
Patrice is a master of mousse. It tastes so au chocolat, he says, because he uses less sugar and an exact amount of egg white, weighed to the gram. The result is an intense chocolate explosion on the tongue as soon as the stiff and fluffy foam melts.
After the chocolate came the espresso. Patrice arrived as soon as I put down my spoon with his surprise du chef: Patrice foams up sugar with the first strong espresso drops that condense in the Italian coffee maker. Creamy and good enough to be eaten pure, the crème makes a perfect garnish that evenly covers a hot cup of strong espresso.
Another red wine arrived arrived, and some friends. We stayed until 2am. Plans abandoned, we ordered one carafe after another, joked with Patrice and his wife, and played with Kenzo.  
Magical. L’Orchide is the dream of a Frenchman bursting with joie de vivre who built himself a restaurant, had his wife paint it red and filled it with pets. He also happens to make the best chocolate mousse in town. It’s nothing less than a fairytale – and, thankfully, he’s willing to share it.

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