D  e  s  e  r  t     E  x  p  o  s  u  r  e     August 2005

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Orchid Cafe Blooms at Cienega

Charcoal-grilled seafood and meats, subtly accented by an array of sauces, make dining seem almost as invigorating as going to a spa.

The shifting light turns the mountains beyond Silver City from golden-green to purplish blue, and the pinkish domes of St. Vincent de Paul church seem to float above the emerald thicket of trees. As the sun sinks behind you, shadows slowly envelop your glass-topped dining table and the wicker chair in which you sit, sipping lemonade. A friendly waiter arrives with your salad—an artful mix of greens (no iceberg lettuce, thank you very much), topped with an orchid. The flower, he assures you, is edible.


Everything about the Orchid Cafe, a new outdoor dining destination at the Cienega Spa and Salon in Silver City, seems delicious—so why not the orchids from which it takes its name?

Not only delicious, but healthful. The phrase "spa cuisine" keeps coming to mind as the courses arrive, and not just because the Orchid Cafe occupies the serene front porch of one of Silver City's leading spas and B&Bs. Nothing is fried; nothing comes glopped with melted cheese or dripping with grease. Everything tastes fresh, subtly accented with sauces and vinaigrettes that enhance, rather than mask, the natural flavors. The emphasis is on grilling—though this is not your father's grilled food, blackened until it's hard to distinguish from the charcoal. No, the grilling is as light as the saucing, just a caress of heat to cook without charring.

When Robin and Pam Hogan set out to expand their Cienega spa into dining, they knew the cuisine would have to be as health-focused as the spa itself. They also knew what they were doing: Although they're known locally for the spa and salon and for the annual Fiesta de la Olla, this is actually the third restaurant they've operated in their varied careers. The Orchid Cafe opened for dinner in late July, and will expand to lunch in mid-August.

Seafood plays a big part in the Orchid Cafe's healthy equation, since the Hogans used to live on the Gulf of Mexico—hence the Caribbean and Latin flavors in the menu—and quality seafood can sometimes be scarce on Southwest New Mexico menus: grilled yellowfin tuna, baked Pacific sea bass, seafood ceviche, Jamaican jerk bacon-wrapped shrimp kabobs (one of their chefs formerly worked in a Jamaican restaurant in New Orleans, so this is the real thing). The seafood soup, brimming with chunks of zucchini, is one of Robin's specialties; light and lively, it's a million miles away from chowder.

Meat lovers won't be disappointed, though: There's also ribeye steak, pork tenderloin and sirloin burger. Chicken comes grilled by itself or atop a salad. Vegetarians can enjoy a Boca burger or a fresh fruit salad.

But picking your main course—after warming up with the ceviche or soup—is just the beginning of your array of options here. First you must select a sauce to pair with the meat or fish: salsa, chipotle-Dijon vinaigrette, Jamaican jerk, cilantro-pesto, ginger-sesame or gorgonzola. You can pick the same or a contrasting dressing for your salad, which is included with the entree. All entrees also include bread (thick, lusty French bread or light cornbread rounds), plus two choices among potatoes (oven-roasted, not fried), rice, tortillas, garlic-herb pasta, black beans or the day's oven-roasted vegetables.

The forthcoming lunch menu will feature many of the same entree ingredients, topping salads or turned into sandwiches. Dinner entrees range from $7.50 to $17.50, and lunch orders will be $6 to $10.50. Also in the works is a selection of wines and beers, as soon as the regulatory powers that be allow.

And don't forget dessert. Though not exactly low-cal, desserts still seem more focused in flavor than on merely filling you up. A slice of chocolate cake is moist and not overly sweet; the lemon cake, with a tartly sweet sauce, feels almost as though you're eating, well, fruit. "Sunshine on a plate," a waitress calls the lemon cake.

As the sunshine in the sky begins to fade and the hues of the unparalleled view from Cienega's front porch start to dull, you wash down the last bite of cake with a sip of coffee and listen to the music gently wafting from the spa. Satisfied—and having eaten plenty, even dessert!—you don't feel stuffed. No button-popping sensation here, just a parade of clean, fresh flavors across your palate.

And—what do you know?—even that orchid tasted pretty darned good.

The Orchid Cafe at Cienega, 101 N. Cooper St. in Silver City, 534-1600, is open daily except Tuesday and Wednesday, 5:30-9 p.m. Lunch, beginning in mid-August, will be offered from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Reservations are suggested.

David A. Fryxell is editor of Desert Exposure and owns four grills, but who's counting?

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