FOOD- THE EATER- Perfect Ten? Close, but no dessert


Metropolitan modern Japanese restaurants have put me in my place: bad tables at inconvenient times, with cheeky servers taking off-the-menu orders from nearby diners who have the "in."

When Ten opened on Halloween two years ago, its understated sign and upstairs Downtown Mall location seemed to suggest that its m.o. was exclusivity. But once inside, one can appreciate the feeling of insulation from the drama of the outside world.

One ascends a steep staircase, guided by tea lights peering out from old joist pockets in a gray brick wall. Candelabra affixed to ashen walls shed soft tawny light over booths in the large, ultra-high-ceilinged dining room. Vases of glass tubes looming over the bar evoke anemone tentacles, matching a glass curtain separating the dining room from a seating area on illuminated tiling—all with the stylized feel of a Kubrick film.

Servers wear black. Plates are white. And against this minimalist backdrop, each dish is designed to thrill and delight.

In spite of the artistry of its design, Ten's reputation as a restaurant has largely reflected the personalities it has caught and released over two years. It opened with Bryan Emperor, of both Nobu and Megu fame. Today's head chef, Chul Kee Ko, came to Ten this summer from another New York institution, this one located in the Trump Tower: Jean Georges.

My first review visit was my birthday, a recent weeknight, when my foodie friend and I started with two new additions to the appetizer menu: Chicken Negimaki ($9) and the Ten Tuna Trio Salad ($15). 

In the former, green onion and basil are encased by thinly sliced chicken breast, fried, sliced like maki, and laid in teriyaki sauce. Negimaki is a traditional Japanese preparation, but the basil and frying batter skew it strongly to the French, and both cuisines would clamor to claim it as theirs.

The tuna dish, however, was less self-assured. Small portions of each of the three tartares were served on Belgian endive leaves over greens dressed in sesame (and ginger) vinaigrette, and the endive's bitterness clashed with the top grade tuna.

Our server was eager to deliver— he knew what he was talking about, and he was fast. Michael Keaveny, who runs Coran Capshaw's restaurant group, circulated the room at the end of our meal to make sure everyone's evenings had gone as they had hoped. I suspect they had. Last December, it took 40 minutes for my party of five to get drinks on a weeknight— an occasion made considerably less special.

I went back for a second meal, this time with parents. Making a reservation for three at 8pm on a Saturday was painless, and we were seated immediately. (My parents and I had fun conjuring up reasons why the young man in the opposite booth was seated with five gorgeous young women in party dresses.)

We began with a large portion of edamame ($5). What I love about Ten's soybean starter is they're tender, evenly salted, and artfully presented. Mom ordered the seaweed salad ($6), illuminated in shaved ice, a novelty effect that supercedes the taste.

We ordered a small selection of impeccably fresh sushi– priced per piece, not per pair. The unagi ($4), barbecued river eel with Japanese peppercorn sprig, invokes aesthetic and tradition.

Ten can be done without eating raw fish, and cutlery can be requested to supplement chopsticks, too. But why? Mom loved her first experience of uni: the, ahem, gonads of the sea urchin.

Seaweed salad and sushi aren't unique to Ten, but it takes a unique approach to tempura. Larger than bite-size and slick with sauce, these dishes are hell to eat with chop sticks, but they impress. The calamari ($13) arrives in thumb-size slices, battered, lightly fried, and tossed in a sweet/hot chili and sesame sauce– quite extraordinary flavor, and after a soft crunch the meat is easy to tear.

We also reveled in the Escolar Goma-Ponzu ($15), Hawaiian walu in black sesame citrus sauce. A well-portioned cut of the firm white fish sat atop a sauce of black sesame tahini and dashi, spotted with white sesame seeds. The dish presents a flavor unlike any we'd had before, and despite our plea, the recipe will remain a secret.

The soft shell crab ($10) is the star of the rolled sushi list; it was served not as a hand-roll as advertised but as four sliced roll pieces. As much as I hate to see soft shell crab served any way but by itself on a plate, the legs fit perfectly in sushi rolls, seasoned beautifully with dry mustard.

The blue fin toro tempura maki conceals high grade marble tuna in a tempura roll with brassy green onion, but it was hard for us to stomach the $20 cost after experiencing chicken utterly transformed in Chef Ko's chicken negimaki for less than half the price.

The "777" roll, the chef's selection of fish with mango and daikon, seems convenient, and the rolled sushi list is otherwise underwhelming.  I'd like to see him revitalize the entire list because I suspect he's above treating sliced rolls like a 3-ring circus of ingredients, which I see elsewhere.

Why have so much faith in Chef Ko? One reason is that his lamb chops ($18) were perfect. Yes, perfect. The soft, juicy meat separated effortlessly, and the cumin and dried chili accompaniment came as a line of crimson seasoning drawn beneath the chops. It showed off his skill and artistry, and I want to see more— including a dessert list.

Something about Ten just feels different since the new chef's arrival, and if it's any indication of what's to come, I'll find more excuses to make special occasions of no occasion at all.