Dinner by Numbers

Is the staff at the Pearl’s newest restaurant confident in what they have to offer, or are they covering up for a perceived lack?

By Camas Davis May 19, 2009 Published in the March 2007 issue of Portland Monthly

"We have no specials tonight," a young, clean-cut waiter says in a rehearsed but altogether gentlemanly voice, while clasping his hands at his chest as I’d imagine a Von Trapp child might while singing at the admiral’s ball. “But I can tell you about a few of my favorites.” At which point he proceeds to “describe” his “preferred” dishes, which consist of three of the four appetizers, two of the three salads and about half the entrées available tonight. He does so essentially by reading aloud what the menu in front of me already clearly states.{% display:image for:article image:1 align:left width:250 %}

Call me a curmudgeon, but while I’m all for an occasional, “Might I suggest the lobster tonight, madam?” this isn’t the first time I’ve witnessed such adages drawn out to the nth degree at Ten 01—the newest, flashiest restaurant to open in the Pearl (on the corner of NW Couch & 10th). When a restaurant’s staff feels the need to sell its menu to me, I can’t help but wonder: Is this restaurant truly confident in what it has to offer, or is it overcompensating for a perceived lack?

There was a black hole into which the flavors disappeared.

In fact, Ten 01, at least upon first glance, has quite a lot to offer: Set in the Henry condo tower, conveniently located around the corner from the new Gerding Theater, the restaurant boasts many perks including valet parking; a raw bar; ambitious lunch, dinner and bar menus that change daily; a 500-bottle wine cellar; a waitstaff that definitely aims to please; and two stories’ worth of seating in a soaring, modern dining room. What’s more, heading up the entire operation are Adam Berger and Michael Rypkema, co-owners of the east side’s perennially popular Tabla Mediterranean Bistro.

Undoubtedly, a lot of money rests on the success of this venture, judging by entrée prices which have lurked in the $25 range. And in an attempt to achieve such success, the owners have seemed willing to tweak the restaurant’s formula since it opened in November—and I’d encourage them to continue to do so. Most noticeably, the structure of Ten 01’s menu has changed. Where once starters were labeled “indulgences” and main courses appeared under the confusing headings “hearth,” “tandoori” and “grill,” the menu now consists of “appetizers,” “salads” and “entrées.” But while the menu’s been simplified—for the better, in my opinion—most of the dishes I’ve tasted were too simple, especially considering their price tags. It’s not that the simple dishes in and of themselves failed—indeed, the first time I tasted the very basic sliders with fries I touted them as the best I’d had in Portland. It’s that many dishes that should have offered nuanced, layered complexity simply didn’t.

In a timbale-shaped appetizer of ahi tuna, beet mascarpone, pea sprouts and toasted sesame seeds, the ingredients battled for attention: The beets overwhelmed the fish, the pea sprouts had little to do with anything, and the sesame seeds added nothing. A hint of tartness and a pinch of salt might have unified the dish.

Another curious ring-mold appetizer of shredded spaghetti squash, poached apples, mustard seed and serrano peppers surrounded by thin slices of purple and green kohlrabi lacked much-needed definition—there seemed to be a black hole into which all potential flavors and textures disappeared. An entrée of halibut cheeks wrapped in serrano ham set atop steamed Brussels sprouts and a white bean purée was serviceable, but not enough that I’d pay $23 to taste it again. Even a lasagna ordered from the bar menu lacked salt, pepper and, remarkably, acidity.

At times the kitchen did hit on elemental combinations that worked—and I sincerely hope that such dishes will continue to grace the menu. A bowl of tender matsutake mushrooms set in a buttery broth with smoky lardon, steamed baby bok choy and a crostini all topped with pungent gruyère was earthy and warm, for instance. And a “calamaretti” (calamari-shaped) pasta with crawfish tails, capers and fried calamari all swimming in a luxurious—albeit alarmingly orange—kumquat cream sauce tasted rich and complex without seeming like the cooks had tried too hard to unify too many ingredients.

Dessert, however, fit the latter assessment. The “forbidden rice pudding” consisted of greasy filo tubes filled with rice pudding, and they didn’t let me in on anything particularly taboo. And a mousse flavored with wattleseed—an Australian “spice” whose ambiguous flavor unappealingly wavers between coffee, hazelnuts and chocolate—was too gelatinous. It had been one of my waiter’s favorite desserts, however, along with the crêpes and the hazelnut napoleon, he’d told me. Perhaps I would have liked the mousse better had he not.