The Compelling Menu of a Federal Hill Institution Can’t Overcome Flawed Setting
Chef Tom Chungkasoon opened his Federal Hill townhouse restaurant Ten-O-Six in early 1999 to warm reviews and appreciative diners, dazzled by eye-popping plate arrangements and gratified by an ambitious menu of Thai and Eurasian fusion entrées. But when was the last time you dined there?
Walking through Federal Hill looking for a place to eat, you’d probably give Ten-O-Six a pass. Through a smoked-glass window you can see a white spray-bottle cleanser someone’s left on the ledge—a little thing, sure, but a sign that people have stopped expecting company. A scouting glance inside Ten-O-Six probably wouldn’t convince you to stay. The place looks kind of tired, a little timeworn, in need of sprucing up. Old published reviews mention roses on the table—where have they gone?
Still, the menu is damned intriguing. Who else in town is serving medallion of ostrich, sweetbreads, rack of boar, and frog legs with fried garlic? And who wouldn’t be happy here, with a menu of moderately priced basic Thai cuisine—drunken noodles, pad Thai, etc.—available alongside Chungkasoon’s ambitious fusion fare, not just boar but grilled jumbo shrimp sautéed with exotic herbs ($16.95) and sea bass encrusted with macadamias ($20.95)?
The yum-beef ($7.50) makes a model and promising Thai appetizer, an instance of letting ingredients speak for themselves. Shreds of beef are marinated with assertive Thai chiles, bracing lime juice, and puckering fish sauce, and tossed with fresh cilantro, cucumbers, and onions. The beef was pleasantly chewy but not tough, full of arousing flavor. A crabmeat spring roll ($7.75) was just as enjoyable—two phyllo-crispy shells stuffed with bamboo shoots, shiitake mushrooms, and snow-white crabmeat perched atop a dipping sauce of homemade ginger-orange syrup flecked with a thousand tiny black sesame seeds. Sweet flavors play with sour, as do soft textures with crispy. Watermelon gazpacho ($5) sounded potentially gross—a cloyingly sweet summer treat, like a daiquiri in a bowl—but the fruit complemented the chilled soup, finishing off the flavors supplied by chopped onions, cucumbers, and green peppers and bringing out the essential fruitiness of the tomatoes. As good as a gazpacho gets.
Two other starters didn’t leave us cold; they merely tasted a little ordinary in comparison with the triumphs. A green papaya salad ($6) brought together the sweet, spicy, and sour—from papaya, palm sugar, fish sauce, lime juice, peanuts, chile, dried shrimp, macadamias—but only occasionally resolved itself into a whole mouth adventure. Siam mussels ($6.95), sautéed with white wine, garlic, lemon grass, chile, and sweet basil, lacked only the kind of urgency that makes you want to order them again.
Boar ($22.95) isn’t gamy, but it is strong, and Chungkasoon flatters a rack of boar with a robust brandy, roasted garlic, and green peppercorn sauce that would clobber beef or lamb. Flambéing the sauce seals in flavors and softens up the meat. Salmon ($17.95) is cured for days before searing, wrapped in fork-tender shoestring potatoes, and topped with a crabmeat beurre blanc sauce. It’s sensational.
Three Thai dishes impressed, especially the nourishing gang seafood ($14.95), a simmering hot pot filled with chunks of specimen salmon, shrimp, mussels, clams, and scallops in red curry sauce. Lamb massaman ($13.95) is thoroughly braised with a thick, complex curry sauce, sweetened by tamarind juice and given interest by crushed peanuts. A challenging sauce of coconut milk, chile, garlic, lemon grass, and kaffir lime leaves smothers slices of maple duck ($12.95), overwhelming the fowl’s flavor. (On the way out, however, I saw Chef Chungkasoon eating this dish for dinner, which made me want to give it another chance.)
The dining room almost succeeds as anti-charming, like the pre-renovation Marconi’s, so dowdy it has to be good. And the absence of ambient distraction puts the focus squarely on the food, which merits the attention. But I’d still hesitate to recommend it for a second date or a night on the town. Strip it down, I say. Pull out the carpeting, take down the smeared Dewar’s mirror, and make Ten-O-Six into a bare-bones temple of creative dining.