Ten Ten, the handsome new Harbor East restaurant adjacent to the Bagby Pizza Company, is brimming with good ideas about everyday dining.
The menu is credited to executive chef Mark Davis, formerly of the Baltimore Country Club. His tenure there, you're tempted to think, instructed him on the fine art of giving people both what they think they want, and what they don't know they want — until they have it.
So, the menu at Ten Ten is a smart and compact mix of the accessible and the gee-whiz. It's that rarest of things, a genuine bistro menu. Appetizers include crowd favorites like lobster macaroni and cheese, duck fat fries and fried oysters but more esoteric offerings, too — items like Medjool dates wrapped in bacon and steak tartare, topped with a shimmering and perfectly handled quail egg. Mostly, what you feel is that the kitchen likes what's on the menu and is working hard to make it good.
The ten entrees aren't flashy — rockfish, a crab cake, steak frites — but each one is thoroughly considered, plated with accompanying sauces, vegetables and slaws. At Ten Ten, you don't have to arrange for your own sauces and sides; that's the job of the kitchen, which is consistently out-performing the front of the house.
If you go to Ten Ten between Sunday and Wednesday, your duties as diner are even simpler. Ten Ten provides you with an optional three-course Courtyard Menu, a streamlined version of the full menu, complete with recommended beer and wine pairings. A table of four can simply tell their server "we'll take it," and then get down to the real business of relaxing over a good meal.
They'll have a good room to do it in. The entrance bar and upper-level dining room of Ten Ten are carved out of a former factory building, and all of the choices made along the way seem apt. Eventually, we'll all grow tired of solid brick, gleaming wood and warm, flattering lighting, but not quite yet. There's more to admire, like the comfortable linen-backed chairs, the attractive place settings and the quiet music. If you went looking for off-notes, you'd find them hanging over the bar. Ten Ten doesn't need two television sets, particularly the one that's visible from the dining room.
The menu changes often at Ten Ten, and a few of the things we loved the most when we visited earlier this month might not be there for you now. Hope for the steak tartare, because you won't find a better version in town. Ten Ten confidently seasons up its beautiful beef with pepper and serves it with cornichons and freshly toasted crostini, and that quail egg adds both a touch of drama and a pleasant, silky texture.
An appetizer of sweet potato gnocchi shows off a fully invested kitchen. The gnocchi themselves are springy, light and delicious, but sprinkled with Grana Padano cheese and tossed with a fennel confit, they become elegant and alluring — a model bistro appetizer.
Similarly, it's the drizzle of hazelnut-orange creme fraiche that elevates a flavorful autumn squash soup and the rich, roasted-onion Bordelaise sauce that makes you appreciate the grilled steak frites entree.
The steak itself is pleasantly and appropriately chewy, seasoned just enough to bring up its beef flavors. It comes with duck-fat fries, crispy at the edges, and bland creamed spinach, one of the few things the kitchen sends out that feels under-loved. An entree of pan-seared Scottish salmon, served with a Romesco sauce, is another. Under-seasoned, it comes across as a menu option for diners who don't like either new things or flavor.
The standout entree, and one of the best dishes I've had all year, is the grilled shrimp and three-cheese grits, which Ten Ten serves with maple-braised greens and a generous slice of crispy pork belly. It's the shrimp, seasoned liberally with coarse salt and pepper, firm and fresh-tasting, that are worth a special trip down to Harbor East.
A roulade of chestnut, chicken and bacon, served with parsnip puree and Brussels sprouts and dressed with apple cider jus, is another smart menu addition, requiring ample prep work but minimal time on the line. That said, there can be unaccountable lags between courses at Ten Ten that seem out of the service staff's control. The service itself would be more thorough and attentive if Ten Ten didn't err on the side of under-staffing.
Desserts, made in house, are the work of Nikki DeBrouse. If the brioche beignet with hazelnut cream, espresso Anglaise and candied espresso beans comes across as an over-complication, the Guinness stout marshmallow with whipped Belgian chocolate ganache, salted pretzels and malted ice cream cohere into a charming and satisfying meal-ender.
The prize for good-looking dessert of the year could easily go DeBrouse's citrus poached seckel pears, with maple pear curd, candied orange peel and crumbled pistachio sable. It's a real beauty, and the flavors are lovely.
With the addition of Ten Ten, the Bagby Restaurant Group is two for two. Next up, an open-kitchen, season-following restaurant named Fleet Street Kitchen, which will be located just across the courtyard from Ten Ten. It is due to open this spring. Based on all that Ten Ten is managing, Fleet Street Kitchen could be one of the bright spots of 2012.
Where: 1010 Fleet St.
Contact: 410-244-6867, bagbys1010.com
Hours: Dinner daily, lunch Monday through Friday and brunch on Sunday
Prices: Appetizers, $6-$15; entrees, $18-$24
Food: 3 1/2 stars
Service: 2 1/2 stars
Atmosphere: 3 stars
[Key: Outstanding: 4; Good: 3; Fair or Uneven: 2; Poor: 1