"When did Brussels sprouts become such a guilty pleasure?" a friend asks as we compulsively dip into a giant bowl of said sprouts at Ten Ten, the Bagby Restaurant Group's American-style bistro in Harbor East. Certainly long enough ago that their luster must be fading, we agree as we eat some more. And after another mouthful, we decide that the answer is roughly after beets and before kale, but does it really matter and please pass the bowl.
A kale salad, along with the sprouts, takes up real estate on our table, and the restaurant does each very well. The sprouts, fried and slick with a savory Asian vinaigrette, crackle like chicken skin. The kale, neatly tossed into salad with mint, peanuts and a little cabbage for crunch, is more reminiscent of the cold, spicy peanut noodles at the old Uncle Lee's on Greenmount Avenue than a sainted, good-for-you superfood.
It's these well-executed riffs on very popular ingredients that make Ten Ten so agreeable.
Four years into its run, there's little outward change to the restaurant. The bar space in front still feels like a good spot for a casual night out or just a drink, a nibble and an inning or two of a late-season ballgame on the television. The dining room, done up in warm brick walls and white leather chairs, remains a comfortable choice for small celebrations, as evidenced by several tables of multigenerational gatherings and a knot of friends celebrating an upcoming wedding. This may be, too, because diners with wildly varying tastes can still feel they have good options here.
Those choices begin with a very fine beverage program. Draft beer choices run decidedly local and often include brews from Union Craft and Monument City Brewing and from Pennsylvania micro-breweries like Weyerbacher or Sly Fox. Ten Ten's wine list nicely covers Old World and New World affordably and without a reliance on generic, mass-market brands. Offering 20 wines by the glass is a boon for those of us whose dining partners may prefer beer or one of Ten Ten's creatively composed cocktails.
Under the direction of executive chef John Hufnagel, Ten Ten's menu continues to focus on seasonal and local ingredients. Many items, like the 14-ounce pork chop on special, come from Cunningham Farms, the restaurant group's Cockeysville property.
But there's a new, pronounced Asian influence, as well, mostly confined to starters and the portion of the menu designated as "The Table" — dishes to share. In these sections, chili-glazed chicken wings, garnished with daikon and black sesame, and Thai curry mussels, doused with lemongrass and coconut milk, appear alongside fried green tomatoes and Chesapeake crab fluffs — crab cakes that are beer-battered and deep-fried. But we weren't completely won over by the over-complicated Korean tacos — wonton cups plump with Mongolian beef, resting on a dab of guacamole and topped with coleslaw and sliced jalapeno. They are messy to eat, which is to be expected, but the combination of flavors — heat from the pepper, savory-sweet from the beef — felt muted, rather than nuanced. Or maybe the sprouts are impossible competition.
Entrees at Ten Ten hew to a traditional, albeit local, spin on bistro, including a requisite crab cake, roast chicken, burger, and shrimp and grits. Portions are generous, and while an overcooked fillet of rockfish served with fresh but oddly out-of-season asparagus disappoints despite the presence of super house-made spaetzle, other entrees are more successful.
Braised beef ribs, for instance, are a primitive pleasure, full of smoky flavor, and gently yielding to fork and tooth. The accompanying fries dusted in chili and lime pack a punch. Caramelized onions and a knob of melting butter top an equally excellent New York strip on a plate of steak frites, and our server was gracious enough to allow for every last french fry to be eaten before clearing plates.
This is kind service, as is showing patience while diners consider options and making enthusiastic recommendations when asked. Our server knew exactly what he was talking about when he suggested the chocolate chip cookie for dessert. Fully cooked, but still meltingly gooey in the middle, it's served hot from the oven in a small cast-iron skillet with dollop of milk sorbet.
We were skeptical when we saw his other recommendation, a prim, layered lemon cake that looked as if it could never live up to its promise. But how lovely it is to be surprised by quality and simplicity in the form of light cake, tart lemon filling and an ethereal buttercream that looked like meringue.
Ten Ten is a little like that cake: outwardly modest, but quietly satisfying. In a city full of restaurants offering variations on the same theme, Ten Ten flies a bit under the radar — offering affordable, close-by dining to Harbor East's growing tourist population, but perhaps overlooked by the local crowd. And that would be a shame.
Where: 1010 Fleet St., Harbor East
Contact: 410-244-6867, bagbys1010.com
Open: Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m., 4 p.m.-10 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m., 4 p.m.-11 p.m.; Saturday, 4 p.m.-11 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. (brunch)
Prices: Starters $6-$13; entrees, $15-$28
Food: Modern American with emphasis on seasonal, local and sustainable
Noise/TVs: Television in the bar area; moderate conversational noise in the dining room
Service: Friendly, accommodating, polite
Special diets: Ten Ten will accommodate any special request and/or dietary restrictions whenever possible. If not, they will provide an alternative.
Parking: Valet is available.
Nearby reviews: Dish Baltimore - Harbor East
Reservation policy: Reservations are accepted.
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