Two months ago, Queens-native Steve Cruz didn’t have dreams of becoming the executive chef at a restaurant; he was happy creating whimsical cocktails for The Orchard House in the Lower East Side and running his own catering company. But when they needed a new chef, the owners asked Cruz to take the position. So, he did. “I loved this place when I first started here,” he said. “I knew food was lacking both in taste and presentation, and I am glad they gave me the opportunity to shine.”
The menu Cruz took over has kept some American comfort food staples (with his own little twists) like the juicy lamb sliders with tomato jam; but now they serve dishes including mac-n-cheese pancakes, challah French toast, and Cruz’s signature plate, the eggplant Napoleon with basil ricotta. Cruz, who is an alumnus of Art Institute of New York, has also brought his artistic touch to the table. This goes perfectly with the modern-meets-rustic décor of The Orchard House, which sports snazzy wallpaper made by graffiti artist Shepard Fairey.On a recent night, my friend and I were wowed with the creative and snappy display of multi-colored beet salad, spoons of yellow fin tuna tartar, and the bright way the braised short ribs were plated.
Cruz has been cooking with since he was 14 years old under the tutelage of his Argentinean grandmother. Before Cruz got this position, he worked at Rayuela in the front of house, and then went on to Cavo in Astoria. He started as a bartender at The Orchard House about eight months ago, and really wowed the crowed with innovative mixtures, that, while they taste fantastic, sound dubious. For example, were apprehensive to try the Figherfighter 12, a mixture of Stoli Hot, fresh strawberries and basil, lemonade, and aloe vera juice—but, it was a fantastic sweet, spicy, and savory drink that managed to still be light. Through the creative flavor combinations in his cocktails and dishes, you can see that Cruz has a lot of great ideas. Still, the chef is green and needs to cut his chops more at the stove, something he said he is eager to do. Right now, the best time to go is for happy hour drink and a nibble or their prix fixe brunch, which includes an entrée and three, yes three, cocktails for $18.95. And soon, Cruz said, they hope to add a drag queen DJ for the ultimate brunch party.