The only thing pretentious about the Wild Orchid Cafe is its name.
Located across from the Eastport firehouse and around the corner from the Eastport Shopping Center in Annapolis, the Wild Orchid carries none of the yacht-basin affectations that infect some Eastport establishments.
A large perennial garden covers much of the front yard of this renovated bungalow, and the columned porch provides a gentle welcome to all. Inside are warm wood floors, sunny yellow walls and a gas fireplace in one octagan-shaped alcove.
Still, it doesn't look much like a fine restaurant. A big pastry case dominates the entry, and tables are lined up, well, cafe-style along the side wall.
Chef and owner Jim Wilder trades on this casual atmosphere. "We want people to feel they don't have to get all dressed up to have a good meal," he explained. "We don't want people to think they have to have a special occasion to come here."
Though it seats only 40 people in the main dining areas, there is a pleasant patio for when the weather is agreeable. There is also a private room upstairs that seats 20 people.
All in all, the Wild Orchid Cafe has the homey feel of your great-aunt's, who just happens to be the best cook in the family, or perhaps an aging flower-child's lair, minus the macrame.
But there is some very good cooking coming from the kitchen.
The Wild Orchid dinner specialty is the $35 fixed price, four-course menu, which includes any of the dozen or so entrees, soup, salad and dessert. During the colder months, at least 85 percent of diners choose the prix fixe, Wilder said. Diners also choose more meat in the colder months. In warmer months, the Wild Orchid sells about as much fish as meat.
There is a separate lunch menu of sandwiches and salads and a special Sunday afternoon four-course tea ($15, available by reservation only).
Service is cheerful and mostly prompt, hampered a bit by the small tables needed to fit even 40 people into the space. (Ours made creative use of an adjacent window ledge for condiments and the solitary candle.)
Dinner begins with roasted red pepper mousse in phyllo cups. Just a little taste to pique the appetite, which it does.
The signature soup is cream of butternut squash topped with sweet Maryland lump crab meat. One day the soup was sensational, warm and silken and flavorful. A more recent rendition was still good, but tepid, and the crab was accompanied by several large pieces of shell.
A more successful presentation, a stunningly piquant pineapple gazpacho, served on a warm September day, suggests that other wonderful soups are possible here.
Lunchtime salads -- grilled salmon over spring greens with a mango salsa and shrimp paired with assorted lettuces -- were perfectly prepared. The salmon was moist on the inside with just a hint of carmelization on the outside; the jumbo shrimp pliable and succulent.
The special dinner salad reads like a holdover from nouvelle cuisine -- spring greens with strawberries and almonds in a raspberry vinaigrette. But the tastes are vibrant, not dated, and an accent of sweet Gorgonzola cheese enlivens them.
Besides the soup, crab appears on the menu in an appetizer fondue and as a crab cake entree. The fondue, presented in a small au gratin dish and served with New York flatbread, is hearty enough for two, not too rich and oozing with crab. More strawberries and other fruits accompany it.
On a recent evening, nearly everyone appeared to be eating either the beef tournedos or the rack of lamb.
The beef -- wrapped in veal bacon, served on a mound of Gorgonzola mashed potatoes and topped with crispy fried slivers of onions -- was fork tender, and the deep meaty flavor was enhanced by the wine reduction.
The rack of lamb's four generous double rib chops rested on a sweet potatoes puree, butter-tossed haricot vert and julienned carrots. The lamb was properly rosy pink and full of flavor. Portions of both were so large that we had them packed to take with us. After all, we had dessert coming.
After relying on purchased desserts since its opening in 1995, the Wild Orchid now prepares some in-house, and those are noted on the daily special menu. Though the chocolate decadence is not made there, it is a winner just the same -- dense flourless cake topped with an even deeper chocolaty ganache.
The most exotic facet of the Wild Orchid Cafe is its wine list. Running to more than 100 selections, most are from little-known wineries and are in the $20 to $30 range.
"Because this is a family-run operation, I like to choose wines from small, family-run wine producers," explained kitchen manager Jennifer Souder, who also oversees the wine buying. "I strive for a lot of variety, and I really aim for value, for wines that taste above what they cost."
We tried a Spanish red that turned out to be thinner than we wanted. This certainly wasn't the first wine disappointment we have had at a restaurant. At least this one cost only $23.
The Wild Orchid Cafe, 909 Bay Ridge Ave., Annapolis. 410-268-8009. Lunch hours: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. Dinner hours: 5-9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 5-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Sundays: 9 a.m.-3 p.m. for brunch, 3-5 p.m. for tea, 5-9 p.m. for dinner. Separate lunch, brunch, dinner and tea menus. A special Christmas menu including goose and venison will be served Dec. 10-31. Starters at dinner, $4 to $9; entrees, $24 to $27; prix fixe, $35. More than 100 wine selections, most $20 to $30, eight wines by the glass, $5 to $7. Parking is available on the street and at the side of the restaurant. Highchairs available. Several steps at the front door; handicapped access from the back patio. Reservations necessary. Web site: www.wildorchidcafe.com.