When you first look at the menu at TEN TEN, you wonder if the chef has gone to creative-writing school. The food is described so beautifully and comprises so many interesting ingredients that you think it couldn’t possibly live up to its promises.
Sunchoke purée, duck cracklings, red-piquillo-pepper-chorizo sauce, fig-orange jam, brandied tangerines. Really?
And then you begin to taste the creative efforts of executive chef Mark Davis and pastry chef Nikki DeBrouse, and you soon realize there’s nothing imaginary about the food.
TEN TEN opened in early November and is the second restaurant for the Bagby Restaurant Group, which started with Bagby Pizza Co. Both restaurants are located in the eponymous building in Harbor East that once was a furniture warehouse.
Another restaurant, Fleet Street Kitchen, will complete Bagby’s downtown triumvirate on the same block, while Cunningham Kitchen will open in Towson. Both restaurants are currently under construction.
Bagby Pizza has curb appeal with its front-and-center location on Fleet Street, while TEN TEN is tucked away in the courtyard behind it. The chic space, a former florist shop, has been recreated into a cozy, 65-seat bistro with brick walls, blond-wood floors, and striking black-and-white photos taken by owner David Smith. He also crafted the wood tables in the restaurant.
TEN TEN has already become a go-to place for lunch, drinks at the sleek, black-marble bar, and special occasions. On one of our visits, two parties of 20 were celebrating events. The staff and kitchen handled the large groups with grace as well as the smaller seatings.
During dinner service, the bread basket sets the tone for the thoughtful dishes that will follow: sage biscuits with cayenne butter one time; sweet-potato rolls and sun-dried tomato cheddar biscuits on another occasion.
The bacon-wrapped dates are one of the most popular appetizers, our waiter said. And, indeed, these bullet-shaped nuggets, stuffed with almonds and blue cheese with red-piquillo-pepper-chorizo sauce, were wonderful.
Our other starter—ricotta gnocchi with a tangle of wilted leeks, Boursin cream, and toasted hazelnuts—also boosted our faith in the kitchen.
Despite one significant flaw, the entrees merely increased our devotion to the creations of chef Davis, who formerly worked at The Woodfire in Severna Park and Baltimore Country Club. Our pan-seared Scottish salmon, while meaty and juicy with its seared skin, sat atop a crab-leek hash that seemed to have more salt than a Morton’s box. A flavorful romesco sauce helped to dilute it a bit.
The bacon-wrapped filet of beef was a statuesque presentation with a generous slab of meat scaling a thick slice of wild-mushroom bread pudding surrounded by a piquant Gorgonzola demi-glace. The charred cherry tomatoes added a sweet burst of summer.
Desserts are made in-house by chef DeBrouse, who is turning out an array of impressive sweets. She follows a deconstructed path, separating key ingredients on a plate to be enjoyed separately or together.
For instance, a rectangle of spicy gingerbread cake is surrounded by a nest of brandied tangerines, a pile of crunchy pralines, and a dollop of butterscotch custard. The red-banana bread pudding is arranged in a similar manner, with a slice of bread pudding setting the stage for honeyed chestnuts, a scoop of brown- butter ice cream, and slices of caramelized bananas.
On another evening, we started out with lightly breaded crispy oysters to be dipped into an exciting fontina-and-tasso ham sauce.
The seared sea scallops were also an excellent beginning, accompanied by a nutty-tasting sunchoke purée, smoked wild mushrooms, and duck cracklings.
An often-requested main dish, we were told, is the grilled shrimp and grits. Many restaurants in town are serving this Southern combo. TEN TEN’s version is spectacular. What sets it apart from the others is a fabulous cube of crispy pork belly and the organic three-cheese poblano grits. The maple-braised kale is just icing on the cake.
Even a simple dish like grilled steak frites gets raves because of the tender beef, excellent bordelaise sauce, and duck-fat fries. The creamed spinach takes the “creamed” part seriously, but we didn’t mind.
We finished with a single, decadent scoop of homemade salted-caramel ice cream and an apple-cider panna cotta—a lovely custard with braised apples, bourbon caramel, and candied pecans.
TEN TEN is also open for lunch and has a range of appetizers, sandwiches, and salads. The bison patty melt features a plump burger encrusted with peppercorns and layered with house-made pimento cheese and caramelized onions on a sturdy brioche. And the grilled chicken sandwich is a treat with avocado, tomato, arugula, smoked Gouda, and chili-lime mayo.
The Bagby Restaurant Group, which also includes Smith’s son, Blake, as a partner, has clearly found a niche with pizza and bistro food at its initial ventures. We can’t wait to see what it does with its upcoming restaurants.