If you live in or near Sacramento, one of the best things to look forward to in the new year is Dine Downtown Week. Every year during the first week of January, some of the downtown area’s finest restaurants offer a special three course menu showcasing new dishes or tried & true favorites for just $30 per person. I absolutely love this event and when things aren’t so tight, I try to check out at least one of the featured restaurants. After all, who can resist the opportunity to try out some of Sacramento’s best restaurants without breaking the bank, right? Unfortunately, these past couple of years haven’t left me with enough breathing room to do this, so when I was invited to attend a special preview dinner at one of these fabulous restaurants, I was beyond ecstatic. Definitely not a bad start to the new year!
As I’ve done each year, I checked out all of the Dine Downtown menus. It’s just something I like to do, not only to mentally salivate over every dish listed, but to glean inspiration from what professional chefs are doing in their kitchens. Most of this year’s menus looked fantastic, but the one that really stood out to me was the one for Ten 22 in Old Sacramento, and I blame this entirely on the lamb entree. I still haven’t gotten over the lamb pops from last summer’s IFBC reception, so any excuse to feed this obsession is good enough for me. Throw factors like “espresso-braised”, “bone marrow mashed potatoes” and Swiss chard into the mix, and I’m pretty much sold. Though the other entrées sounded delicious, I wanted something more unique for this experience. A quick glance at the items for the other two courses assured me that my friend Rich and I would have plenty of choices to satisfy both of our distinct tastes in food.
Situated right in the middle of Old Sac, Ten 22 is easily accessible from most freeways in this general region. Inside, the light, modern decor plays off the original rustic brick walls of the building, giving the space a bright, open feel with plenty of charm. A rather impressive wine section located to the left of the host’s area instantly tempts you with rows upon rows of lovely looking wines, and the full bar at the right appears perfectly stocked with all the best spirits. We were greeted warmly by our seating hostess, who gave us our choice of an open table in the middle of the room, one of the regular booths, or something a bit more intimate. We chose a booth near the buzzing activity of the bright open kitchen, and next to what appeared to be a private dining area or extra seating area for busier evenings.
Our friendly server arrived almost immediately and started us off with warm bread with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, while we perused the drink menus. As was to be expected, they offered a wide variety of wines, and their beer selection also looked quite formidable. House cocktails priced at $9 each featured well-known classics and some more exclusive cocktails, like the Hombre martini (made with Skyy vodka, Rose’s lime juice, sweet & sour and fresh jalapeños and a touch of cilantro). Though that seemed like an interesting choice, Rich & I stuck with more traditional drinks. He ordered a nice ale, and after a couple of recommendations from our server, I chose the ZD Pinot Noir. We put in our orders for our first course, opting to share one of each of the dishes offered on the special menu.
While we waited, Executive Chef Jay C. Veregge stopped by to welcome us and offered to answer any questions we might have. I told him I pretty much had my heart set on the Espresso-Braised Lamb Shank, which he assured me was an excellent choice, telling us it was one of the most popular dishes Ten 22 had to offer. We asked him about the Maple-Brined Pork “Rack” Chop, and he explained that it was pretty much a tender pork chop with the bone attached, similar to rack of lamb. As this is the only kind of pork that Rich likes to eat, and it was paired with fabulous sides like buttermilk mashed potatoes and roasted broccoli flowers with wild-sage butter, his choice was also confirmed.
Chef left us for a few seconds and our first two dishes - the Frito Misto with Calamari and the Roasted Tomato Bruschetta – were brought to us. The bruschetta was lovely to look at, with ribbons of fresh basil decorating the generous amount of roasted tomatoes & fresh mozzarella slices that topped the perfect-looking toastettes. The three generously topped servings sat in the middle of a lavish drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, adding an extra pop of color and more flavor to the bruschetta (seriously… that was some of the best olive oil I’ve had in a long time). Chef stopped by again briefly to see what our selections had been, and he explained to us that the fresh mozzarella was actually house-made, making me even more excited to try it. It was a solid appetizer, with the roasted tomatoes lending a slightly different flavor & texture than the usual fresh tomatoes found on most bruschetta, and the cheese a wonderfully creamy indulgence.
The Fritto Misto surprised me in that it was a much larger portion than I expected. This was to be a recurring theme in our meal, which satisfied both Rich and me. Often times we’ve gone to nicer restaurants only to find that the portions are so small they’re no longer even chic-looking. Ten 22 just lets you enjoy the food, piling your plates high with all the good stuff. We both remarked at how nicely the calamari was cooked – not overdone & rubbery, but not soggy, either. The green beans, carrots, and sweet red peppers were also fried to perfection, and nothing felt greasy or heavy in the least. Served with a side of fresh arugula & carrots, a wedge of lemon, and a Sriracha-garlic aioli, this was another solid appetizer which I would highly recommend.
After a quick trip to the powder room, I returned to find that our entrees had just been brought to the table (making me feel a bit like Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction). They both looked so amazing that neither of us could wait to dig in, and I (im)politely had to smack Rich’s hand away from his dish so that I could take a few photos. “Can you smell that?” he asked me as my camera snapped away. Honestly, I couldn’t with my raging cold, but he assured me it smelled “friggin’ amazing” and told me to hurry up so we could eat.
While he dug in to his “really buttery” mashed potatoes, I just stared at my plate, overwhelmed by the size of my dinner. Again, Ten 22 doesn’t seem to believe in tiny, artsy-fartsy portions; they want to feed you, and feed you well. If Rich’s pork rack chop was huge, my lamb shank was straight out of a renaissance fair’s food court! It was enormous! Flanked by heaping portions of Swiss chard and bone-marrow mashed potatoes, and swimming in a pool of luscious espresso pan jus, this was just the indulgent meal I had hoped to receive. The mashed potatoes (which I was looking forward to as much as the lamb) had a lovely texture and were complemented quite nicely by the bits of bone marrow that had been rendered from the bone of my lamb shank. The wilted Swiss chard was soft but not mushy, and went wonderfully with the espresso pan jus. And the lamb…… oh, the lamb! It was beautiful, tender, and absolutely made better by being braised in rich, dark espresso. And because I had plenty of pan jus to dip it in, each bite was juicy and filled with that deliciously smoky flavor.
Rich, who is a power eater, inhaled his maple-brined pork with gusto, proclaiming repeatedly that this was a far better meal than some others I’ve taken him to in the past. While I savored my lamb & potatoes slowly, I noted that his pork looked juicy and perfectly pink, not overdone & dry. He said the maple glaze really made the dish in his opinion, and I was allowed one bite of the tender meat & sauce. It was another clear winner, and if it hadn’t been for the lamb on the menu, I could have easily seen myself ordering that dish.
But there came a point when I just couldn’t eat any more. It was just so much food, and the wine, bruschetta, calamari and bread had helped to fill me up just a bit. Since I’m a firm believer in saving room for dessert, I reluctantly pushed my plate aside, hoping like crazy that they’d let me take the rest of my ginormous meal home with me. Sure enough, they did, and our server swiftly returned with my giant box of food in a cute little bag (brown bags with handles are always cuter than the regular kind). When we were asked what we wanted to try for dessert, we both ordered the same thing: Chocolate Fondant Cake.
I tend to shy away from chocolate cakes at restaurants and though the other choice of Mango Panna Cotta looked perfectly delightful, it didn’t seem like the right dessert to enjoy after our meals. And after hearing Chef’s description of the cake, the idea of a light panna cotta just couldn’t hold a candle to the promise of rich Valrhona chocolate. We made a very wise choice. Layers of moist dark chocolate cake alternated with sinfully rich, thick layers of what seemed to me like more of a ganache-fondant hybrid. Garnished simply with three luscious raspberries & a small sprig of of fresh mint, this was a fantastic end to a satisfying meal. And though it went beautifully with my small glass of port, it was, again, just too big for me to finish. So home it went along with my lamb for me to enjoy the next day.
Overall, I really enjoyed my experience at Ten 22. There have been plenty of mixed reviews about this restaurant, and I was glad I finally got the opportunity to check it out for myself. I felt our server was swift, friendly and attentive without being overly so, and he seemed knowledgeable and confident about his recommendations to us. Chef Veregge was very down-to-earth and I appreciated his attentiveness and openness to suggestions. In fact, when I mentioned that there were some things on the restaurant’s website that were not working, he immediately went to the person in charge of that task, and when I got home that night, the fixes had already been made. If this is a reflection of how things are handled in the back of the house, Ten 22 is in great hands. Our dinner certainly proved that, and I’ll definitely be back once I can comfortably afford to enjoy a night out again.
Hopefully, Ten 22 will become a regular fixture in the Dine Downtown line up in years to come. But rest assured that all of the restaurants that are participating this year have fabulous menus to offer and are definitely worth a shot. Be sure to check out any of the more than 30 participating restaurants during Dine Downtown Week, which runs from January 7th to January 16th*. It’s a great way to check out some of Sac’s best dining experiences without breaking the bank.
*Reservations highly recommended.