In the spring of 2010, I visited a much-anticipated new restaurant in Old Sacramento called Ten22, and it didn't exactly go as I anticipated.
The owner of this spacious and stylishly casual place was also the owner of the high-end, highly regarded and historic Firehouse Restaurant, just a few doors down the street. So I was looking forward to a top-flight operation. I even assumed some of those star employees at the Firehouse would drop by, try it out and, without being too snooty about it, offer some constructive criticism.
The room was lovely, the service, with the exception of clumsy bartenders who twice spilled my wine, was more than acceptable. The prices didn't make me gag.
But the food? It wasn't pretty.
Back then, I referred to the cooking as "all free range – that is, ranging from mediocre to horrible."
That food, so much of it over three perplexing visits, added up to a great big blur of blandness masquerading as creative attempts on the cuisine of the moment, comfort food.
Times change, and this restaurant, based on three more visits in recent weeks, seems to have found its footing.
There is a new chef with an impressive repertoire and noteworthy credentials at Ten22 and, for me at least, that translates into renewed expectations that this restaurant is going to get it right.
Those disastrous "corn flake chicken wings" soaked in hot sauce that made me lose hope in humanity when I tried to eat them in 2010 are gone. So is the chef who thought they were a good idea, apparently without ever trying to eat them with a straight face.
The new Ten22 menu is tightly focused, and it features a rotating list of appealing daily specials that show off chef Jay C. Veregge's ability to make playful flavor combinations. Veregge's résumé has to be among the most eye- popping in town: classical training at the French Academy of Culinary Arts, a degree in enology (winemaking), an apprenticeship in France,and a string of subsequent kitchen work, including his own restaurant, Le Bistro, in Lake Tahoe in the 1990s.
This chef, who's been at Ten22 for a year, knows what he's doing, and it shows, though I'm not sure the weakest links in the kitchen can handle some elements of his menu.
The Spanish Basque paella ($23) was first-rate: loaded with flavor and overflowing with a very fresh assortment of prawns, clams, mussels and chorizo, all cooked amid the rice and held together with a delicious broth seasoned with red peppers and saffron. This was a hearty yet sophisticated take on a traditional Spanish dish that is not so easy to get right. The only thing I missed was the crispy, nearly burnt bottom of the rice, but that's not mandatory.
Before that, of course, the food was another story. After my harsh review, owner Terry Harvego showed admirable determination to stick by his first chef. I even admired his campaign to bounce back from the review – with a special called "I'll be the judge," in which customers could order dishes I disliked and get half off.
Now, though, Ten22 features St. Louis ribs that were, like the paella, appealing in a rustic, family-style way – perfectly tender and meaty ribs slathered in a bright, smoky sauce and served with perfectly prepared sweet potato fries. The only mystery on the plate was the "Moravian" cole slaw, which had a hint of apple flavor but was otherwise bland enough to be tasteless.
On Chef Veregge's menu, I tried to pick out his specialties because I wanted to see what he thinks is his strong suit. My reaction is largely positive with two of those dishes, the grilled wild jumbo prawns ($22) and the fried green tomato pizza ($11), which is apparently made in a brick oven.
The prawns were plated with flair – laid out in a line atop the coconut-mango basmati rice and presented with a cilantro salad and prawns covered in a sharp and delicious Thai red curry sauce. This was a delicious surprise and such a contrast to the Ten22 I had tried to forget.
Veregge's background may be impressive, but it doesn't seem to extend to pizza prowess. His toppings on the fried green tomato pizza were charming and largely delicious – handfuls of not-so-bitter arugula scattered about, with drizzles of ranch dressing I could have done without, a smattering of roasted tomato salsa and, buried beneath the melted Fontina cheese, those fried green tomatoes.
You can do whatever you want to a pizza, but you have to nail the crust. This thin crust was pale and dull, and it was crispy without having any character to the texture – no stretch or pull, no airy lightness, nothing that made it a joy. It could definitely stand to be improved. You don't have to do Neapolitan or New York-style to have a good pizza, but a fantastic crust would make these pizzas worth a special trip to Old Sac.
I'm sometimes amused by the descriptions I see on menus, like Ten22's "single-source" pork porterhouse for $20, which tempted me enough that I ordered it, only to wonder about the single source in the kitchen who murdered this dish. Every beginning cook knows that pork can easily be overcooked. This dish was ruined by overcooking. Why not just come to the table and flambé a $20 bill?
The trend in most top kitchens these days, long after worries about trichinosis have be laid to rest, is to leave fine pork a little pink in the middle. It maintains the subtle flavor juiciness. This was tough, dry and dismal, more like a single-source chew toy. Even the smoky plum demi glace, underseasoned and underwhelming as it was, could not mask this basic cooking misstep.
But those are just a couple of fumbles in a restaurant that has improved markedly since my visits over a year ago. Other noteworthy dishes include a vegetarian pasta dish and an extra-large and very tasty pulled pork sandwich, both of which we enjoyed for lunch.
Ten22 is much better than it was and, with a tad more consistency in the execution of the new chef's menu, it promises to get better still.
Where: 1022 Second St., Old Sacramento
Hours: Open daily. Lunch 11:30 a.m.-4 p.m.; dinner 4-10 p.m.
Full bar? Yes
Overall: 2 1/2 stars (pretty good)
This marks a significant improvement since the initial review in April of 2010. Back then, the only major shortcoming was the food, and that has been improved with the hiring of an experienced chef, Jay Varegge. With more consistency in the kitchen, this rating will climb even higher.
Food: 2 1/2 stars (pretty good)
The best dishes indicate there is some serious cooking going on. The grilled prawns, paella, ribs and fried green tomato pizza are good bets, even though we think the pizza crust needs improvement. A seriously overcooked (and dried out) pork chop suggests the execution is not as consistent as it could be. But there is plenty to like on a menu that manages to be both eclectic and broadly appealing.
Service 2 1/2 stars (pretty good)
The servers hired here are above average and some are very good. Two out of three greetings when we arrived were friendly, but one night the host barely acknowledged us.
Ambience 3 stars (good)
Big room, open kitchen, nice bar and plenty of style give the place a modern look mixed with a touch of rustic. Live music some nights adds to the pleasant vibe.
Value 3 stars (good)
A $12 burger may seem steep, but the prices overall, in the teens and low $20s for entrees, are reasonable for the quality and portions. The daily specials and the three-course Thursday dinners are good values.
Noteworthy: If you want to get a good look at chef Jay Veregge's repertoire, check out Ten22's special beer tasting dinner on Aug. 4. More details on the restaurant's website.