Tucked away and tiny without much signage, Ten Ten Room is easy to walk past – though the name, which is also the restaurant’s address, offers a helpful clue. That’s good, because missing the latest opening from husband-wife team Tyler and Melissa Williams, also of Jungle Bird and Tank House, would be a pity.
The pocket-sized bar-restaurant, occupying the former Megami Bento-Ya space on 10th Street downtown, has a clubby, ‘50s-ish vibe; a wall of black-and-white portraits of local restaurateurs is a nod to the Sutter Club’s wall of members’ photos. The sometimes tongue-in-cheek menu includes throwbacks to match, from meatballs with grape jelly to a grasshopper cocktail.
It’s all very inspired by the “Mad Men” era, and at lunch one day, the show itself was playing on the TV near the richly paneled bar. Happily, however, the restaurant projects none of Don Draper’s grim alienation. Painted in a dark teal and sporting tawny, comfortable leather booths, the small space feels snug and full, adding to the cocktail-party aura.
Last week I reviewed The Patriot, a 200-seat restaurant with dozens of menu options. Ten Ten Room, which can seat just 32 guests and has a whopping four entrees (plus several meal-size sandwiches), felt like its polar opposite.
Cozy and extra-festive during the holiday season, Ten Ten Room is a good place to hunker down against the chill while enjoying cocktails, such as the bracing and astringent Some Like It Hot. It features brandy balanced with bitter Cynar and lemon. It can be ordered hot or cold, as the name cheekily implies.
Cocktails are a major focus here, as befits the era to which the bar gestures. The drinks of the 1950s and 1960s tended to be high-octane and straightforward, and Ten Ten’s libations follow that guideline, including the subtly herbal original Coup d’Etat (bourbon, vermouth, chartreuse) or the genuinely old-fashioned Grand-Dad’s Old Fashioned.
The drink names often have a clever twist. The old fashioned, for example, is made with Old Grand-Dad’s bourbon, but it’s also put together the way a lot of granddads would make one: topped off with club soda. I loved the ginger bite and citrus tang of the Monty Python-esque Bring Me the Shrubbery, a tart gingery twist on a French 75 that includes gin and tangerine-elderflower shrub – a nonalcoholic, fruity beverage that’s been popular in Sacramento in recent years.
Also featuring elderflower was a White Linen Slush, part of a small menu of frozen cocktails that I predict will be runaway hits in the summer months. At one lunch visit, my companion ordered the frozen sangria. Our server returned shortly to say it wasn’t quite frozen, bringing instead a generous complimentary taste of the White Linen Slush. The server asked my companion if he would rather switch to that or wait 10 to 15 minutes for the sangria he had ordered. He went with the slush, and he did not regret the decision.
It was a good way for the server to spin a small snafu into a positive moment, and typical of the service I encountered over three visits: eager to please, unstuffy and unobtrusive. This approach struck the right notes for the restaurant, which felt cohesive, with most details contributing to a harmonious overall experience.
Take the menu, for instance, smartly designed by executive chef Greg Pilapil (formerly of Hook & Ladder) to include smile-inducing twists on mid-century Americana. There’s no Jell-O salad yet – I dare some enterprising restaurateur to do this one day – but there’s onion dip, fried ravioli, roast chicken with green bean casserole and the aforementioned meatballs in grape jelly, which were really good. Made with a tender mixture of beef and pork, the meatballs were coated in a thick, tangy sauce that tasted like an updated spin on the chili-sauce-spiked grandma-style party nosh of yore.
Another winner among the appetizers is the deviled Scotch egg, with deep-fried, house-made sausage encasing a hard-boiled egg; the whole shebang is cut in half, with the spiced yolk piped back in. And here I come to a recantation of a long-held food opinion. In my introductory column for The Bee, I noted that my food kryptonite is deviled eggs, to the dismay of many readers. Well, the Ten Ten Room got me to eat a deviled egg, and what’s more, once it was balanced by crunchy, spicy sausage, I liked it.
I was slightly less wowed by the fried spinach and cheese ravioli, served with marinara. They could have been crunchier and tasted a little bland other than their showering of Parmesan, making them unremarkable in an otherwise successful section of the menu.
A stronger updated classic was the onion dip, which had nary a whiff of Lipton’s powdered onion soup mix about it. The dip was creamy and silky smooth, with a rich caramelized-onion flavor that drew me back repeatedly. Unfortunately, the accompanying house-made potato chips tasted great but were unevenly fried. Some were perfectly crisp, with an unusual airy crunch, but some were wilted and floppy, a sad state of affairs for a food that is basically meant as a dip shovel.
The kitchen’s missteps were few, but as with the chips, those it did make were glaring. Another miscue was in the steak frites at dinner one night. The thin-cut New York steak was salted so heavily that my companion couldn’t eat more than a few bites and had to make a meal out of the wedge fries alongside.
Those hearty fries were consistently good, and can also be ordered “loaded” for a small additional charge. The menu as a whole is moderately priced, with entrees under $20 and most apps under $10. On one visit, our server suggested I douse the fries that accompanied my lunch sandwich in gravy and cheese, and we happily let ourselves be upsold into what my husband called “stealth poutine.” Truth be told, I preferred it to the genuine Quebecois article, which usually relies on canned gravy, rather than the rich, thick type that Ten Ten’s kitchen is turning out.
My chicken club was well balanced, with a lemon aioli and a subtle, sharp bite from thin-sliced red onions enlivening the classic sandwich, layered with moist chicken and creamy avocado. Two quibbles: The sandwich’s white toast was a shade burnt in spots, and the bacon was tough rather than crisp.
Ten Ten Room’s lunch business has been on the quiet side so far, according to Tyler Williams, but the good prices and strong sandwich lineup ought to make it popular with the downtown lunch crowd. I also liked the meatball sub, with zesty marinara on garlic bread, and the flavorful garlic steak sandwich. This featured similar thin-cut New York steak as the entree had, but either the kitchen used a lighter hand with the seasoning or it was balanced by everything else going on in the sandwich, including garlic bread and a cloud-textured, silky horseradish cream.
The entree menu has just four offerings, and I tried them all. This is not the strongest section of the menu, but the shrimp and grits offered lots of flavor in a gussied-up version of the classic, complete with spicy chorizo. The grits themselves needed a little more seasoning, though; maybe some of the salt from the steak would have helped matters. The spinach and cheese ravioli, like their fried counterpart, were fine but nothing to write home about.
The real standout on the entree menu was the roasted chicken breast with green bean casserole. The chicken was tender and juicy, and the crunchy-tender green beans were swathed in a savory mushroom gravy – an elevated nod to the soup-can casserole binder. Crisp fried onions sprinkled on top added punch.
There are a couple of desserts on the menu, including an indulgently creamy chocolate mousse layered with fruity whipped cream. But for a truly memorable sweet ending to the meal, I say order a grasshopper for the table. The classic cocktail, with its shocking shade of crème-de-menthe green, and its generous dose of crème de cacao and heavy cream, is slushy and almost thick enough to eat with a spoon, and it tastes like the best mint chip ice cream you never had.
I can’t think of the last time I saw a grasshopper on a menu, and now I wonder why more places don’t have it. Like the onion dip and the meatballs on other visits to the Ten Ten Room, that grasshopper made me smile, miss my grandma a little and feel glad I had left my house on a chilly December night to hang out with friends willing to share a bright green drink. Any place that can hit those notes of pleasure, mild nostalgia and celebration is one I want to revisit. What else, after all, are restaurants for?
Email Kate Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter: @washingtonkate
Ten Ten Room
1010 10th Street. 916-272-2888. tentenroom.com
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-2 a.m. Monday-Friday (kitchen open 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.); 2 p.m.-2 a.m. Saturday and Sunday (kitchen open 4-10 p.m.).
Beverage options: Full bar, with thoughtfully crafted original cocktails and classics your grandma would greet like an old friend (grasshopper, anyone?).
Vegetarian friendly: Moderately.
Gluten-free options: Yes.
Noise levels: The bar is small enough that it gets loud when full, but mostly you won’t have to shout to make yourself heard.
Ambiance: Clubby and intimate, the small but stylish Ten Ten Room encourages lingering with cozy tables, comfy leather booths and a gleaming wood bar.
With a cleverly executed mid-century concept, a tightly edited and largely successful menu, great drinks and a suave atmosphere, the convivial Ten Ten Room fills a niche Sacramento’s cocktail scene might not even have known it was missing.
The menu is short but mostly rock-solid, equally good for bar snacking or a sit-down meal, with fun takes on vintage classics such as meatballs in grape jelly, roast chicken with freshened-up green bean casserole and a strong lineup of meaty sandwiches. Don’t miss the fries with gravy and cheese.
Servers are on the casual side, as befits the atmosphere, but accommodating, likeable and efficient. Bartenders are serious about their work, furrowing their brows when charring a strip of orange zest, but up for a chat.
Price points are consistent and affordable for the quality and portion sizes on offer: Entrees are all under $20, the substantial sandwiches are $12-14 and appetizers cost $10 or less. Nearly all cocktails are a straight, refreshing $10.