I’ll admit it: I rarely consider Old Sacramento when making dining plans. The neighborhood’s association with tourists, pricey parking and knickknacky stores is enough to relegate it to “for visiting family members only” status.
However, there are a few dining gems in Old Sac, most notably The Firehouse. With its opulent ambiance, knockout wine list and sophisticated cuisine, The Firehouse lures locals to Old Sac to celebrate any number of important events, including anniversaries and small weddings. Its undeniable special-occasion nature is one of The Firehouse’s major appeals, which leads me to wonder if restaurants in Old Sac need to have a gimmick of some sort to attract locals. Rio City has its jaw-dropping river view, whilekitschy Joe’s Crab Shack has maniacal dancing waiters and naughty (“My Waitress Gave Me Crabs”) T-shirts.
But what if your gimmick is less obvious? What if you’re simply determined to offer solid, well-made food in a contemporary environment? This appears to be the goal of the Harvego family, longtime owners of The Firehouse. Banking on the lengthy success and goodwill of its flagship location, the family has designed a new space that is its polar opposite. Ten 22 has broken the Old Sac restaurant mold. Modern and austere, it’s everything The Firehouse is not. Stuffy intimacy has given way to giddy expansiveness; dim lighting is eschewed in favor of cafeteria-level brightness. The cavernous, high-ceilinged space smacks you with stark beigeness. There are no baubles or frills, elaborate artwork or lugubrious wood to distract you or to weigh down the atmosphere.
A handsome blond-wood bar spills seamlessly into the dining area, and an open kitchen invites you to catch a glimpse of your meal as it’s being prepared. This urban, linear eatery, with its sometimes-playful New American-style menu and khaki shirt-clad wait staff, could easily be found in midtown or downtown. The question that lingered in my mind as I nibbled on the pop-in-your-mouth-size Dungeness crab “Tater Tots” was, “Is this enough?” Or, to borrow sloppily from the movie Field of Dreams, if you create a modern, upscale restaurant in Old Sac, will they come?
Several months ago, I attended a pre-opening menu tasting for local food bloggers. It was with some amusement that I discovered the jarringly sweet, fuchsia-stained tropical-punch pickle chips (say that five times in a row without stumbling) that had so perplexed me at the tasting actually ended up on Ten 22’s menu along-side the doughy (and decidedly adult) mini corn dogs. I also found it interesting that the family decided to use stemless wineglasses. “What do you think?” Terry Harvego had asked the food bloggers, gauging our reaction to the nontraditional glassware. The question elicited a lively debate with no clear resolution. When my wine was set in front of me at the restaurant, the stemless glass’s pedestrian construction struck me as another renunciation of Old Sac fussiness, delivering a message that Ten 22 is all about approachable, modern dining. Our waiter admitted the glasses had received mixed reviews from customers so far; white wine drinkers, he said, were concerned about their hands warming up the wine.
The menu is dominated by smaller plates designed for sharing. So share we did. One nibble was the slow-braised ribs on a tidy pile of garlic mashed potatoes. The tender ribs (two to an order) were topped with a feisty, sweetish slaw of cucumber and yellow bell pepper. A duo of virtually tasteless yellow corn and shrimp cakes left me cold, as did an attractive but bland black bean pizza whose flavor couldn’t be revived by the red onion and cilantro sprinkled on top. Two beautifully seared large scallops arrived surrounded by delicate circles of a slightly sweet rosemary-orange reduction spattered with salty bits of pancetta. The high point of my meals at Ten 22 was a fabulous 8-ounce Niman Ranch burger topped with pepper Jack cheese, smoked bacon and caramelized onion, and an herb-roasted chicken with expertly cooked broccoli rabe and lumpy mashed potatoes was a comforting choice on a chilly evening.
Desserts were pleasant. My kids in particular enjoyed the messy s’mores, made with melted chocolate peanut butter cups. A cheesecake napped with silky caramel and crunchy pecans was another sweet worth sampling. The restaurant offers a great lineup of beers on tap, as well as an interesting, compact wine list with some nice selections by the glass. I was struck by the evident pride of the staff, who clearly feel they are part of something special. I applaud the Harvego family’s bold move in a dub-ious economy and wish them success as they market their new venture to tourists and locals alike.
Kid stuff: The children’s menu includes Rice Krispies-dusted salmon
Car talk: Valet parking is available; if you park in a city lot, the restaurant validates
1022 Second St., Old Sacramento, (916) 441-2211; ten22oldsac.com
Hours: Open daily 11:30 a.m.–10 p.m.