Return to Ten-O-Six puts bistro back on the radar

Owner / chef has made changes for the better

Sunday Gourmet

July 03, 2005|By Elizabeth Large | By Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

A restaurant critic's luck can be streaky. You go for weeks eating uneven or downright mediocre meals and then jackpot! Two little gems in a row. It's what makes the job worthwhile.

Last week it was Joy America Cafe. This week, in roughly the same neighborhood, Ten-O-Six, another restaurant that had fallen off my radar until a reader alerted me to the excellent food coming out of Tom Chungsakoon's kitchen. I should say reminded me, because when I was last there six years ago it was good.

Now it's better.

Chungsakoon, who runs his bistro with his wife and sous chef Penny and son Richard, has refined his menu and his technique. He has wisely come to the conclusion that more elaborate is not necessarily better, but he doesn't hold back when a dish needs one of his silky beurre blancs or some pretty garnish. He adds elements from his classical French training to his native Thai dishes, and accents his European dishes with Asian flavors.

There is much more Thai cuisine on the menu than I remember, and less fusion food. But one thing hasn't changed: Ten-O-Six is a bargain no matter how you look at it, with most entrees priced comfortably under $20.

You go for the food, not the ambience. At the entrance of the bistro is a tiny open kitchen. In back of it is the downstairs dining, which is small, seating only 28. (Upstairs is a dining room to handle overflow.) This time of year there's a happy alternative, a pretty outdoor seating area in front of the restaurant. Reservations are a must.

There are six more months of eating out to go, but I'd still like to nominate Ten-O-Six's Tempura Soft Shell as my Appetizer of the Year. A small, plump crab is cut into quarters, dipped in a light tempura batter, and fried to a delicate gold. The pieces are arranged artistically on a bit of sauteed spinach for color, then drizzled with a yellow curry sauce that has distinct fire but the velvet texture of a fine French sauce. Strategically placed macadamia nuts add visual interest.

If you like your food to deliver searing heat, try the Thai clams for a first course. They are shucked to order, sauteed and placed back on the half shell. Their minced topping delivers complex notes of flavor -- fresh basil, tamarind, garlic. The fiery jolt catches you unawares.

On a hot summer evening, you may prefer Chungsakoon's watermelon gazpacho, a deliciously fragile soup that combines a fruity sweetness with the traditional icy tomato soup with finely diced raw vegetables. If all this sounds a little too imaginative for you, Ten-O-Six has more usual appetizers as well, including as good a version of chicken satay in peanut sauce as I've tasted.

The menu could be more seasonal (the current menu offers some pretty wintry dishes, like rack of boar, braised short ribs, and pork tenderloin), but a large braised lamb shank had such an elegant little zinfandel sauce and was so tender and aromatic with fresh herbs, we couldn't complain. The meat itself, though, didn't thrill me. Cloud-like mashed potatoes made us wonder what all the fuss was about seasonal foods.

The special of the day was indeed something special. It played a fat fillet of albacore, perfectly cooked, and lump crab against a lovely saffron beurre blanc. The seafood lay languidly on a bed of rice with fat asparagus spears at its side.

Lump crabmeat and almost nothing else forms Ten-O-Six's crab cakes. There is a whisper of binding and a suggestion of seasonings. Who knew that a crab cake would benefit so much from a fine bearnaise sauce? The one enormous cake rested on a risotto cake with more of that fine asparagus.

Pink slices of plump duck breast can be had as a European dish with orange and coriander, or as Chu-Chee Duck cooked in coconut milk with citrusy accents and plenty of heat. Just-tender broccoli florets were as carefully cooked as the asparagus that came with our other entrees; the starch of choice was jasmine rice.

Be aware that Ten-O-Six has a beer and wine license, but doesn't serve hard liquor. If I could do one thing to improve the restaurant, I would do something about the bread. The square pieces tasted like pieces of day-old baguette that had been sprinkled with cardamom and dill and toasted. On the other hand, what do you serve when half the table is eating Thai and the other half French food?

No such ambiguity seems to trouble the kitchen when it comes to dessert, which are European through and through. Well, there is a key lime pie, but you know what I mean -- they run to chocolate mousse cakes and creme brulee. Decorated with strawberries, blackberries and swirls of creme anglaise and raspberry sauce, they are delicious.

A busy night might overwhelm Ten-O-Six's tiny kitchen, but that's almost the only negative thing I can think to say about this fine little Thai and fusion bistro.

Ten-O-Six

Food: ***1/2 (3 1/2 stars)

Service: *** (3 stars)

Atmosphere: **1/2 (2 1/2 stars)

Where: 1006 Light St., Federal Hill

Hours: Open for dinner Tuesday through Sunday

Prices: Appetizers, $5.95-$7.95; Entrees: $11.95-$22.95

Call: 410-528-2146

Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *

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