Cafe Reviews

Ten at the Esplanade in Phoenix Serves Above Average American Cuisine

I have fond memories of meeting colleagues for drinks at Nixon’s, the little red brick bar next to the escalator at the Esplanade. The red bricks are still there, but the erstwhile cocktail lounge has housed several spots and currently is inhabited by Ten, a sometimes-­better-­than­-average restaurant and bar overseen by Ohio chef Jeff Hostenske (the name of his restaurant is lifted from the man’s last name). During visits at lunch and dinnertime, I found things to like among Hostenske’s straightforward entrées and appetizers, several of which he’s tweaked just enough to make them interesting. He’s calling his cuisine “approachable American,” and it is at least that.

During an initial visit, the pacing of our meal was off; salads came minutes after our appetizers arrived. Those starters were both winners: The shrimp and gritcake changed up the usual shrimp-­and-­grits presentation, offering a sweet, moist pancake made of coarsely ground cornmeal topped with cherry tomatoes, tasty, crisp­-skinned andouille, and drizzled with a piquant, Creole­-spiced sauce. Hush puppies, which grew cool while we worked on our salads, were tasty nonetheless. Crumbled with blue cheese and bacon, they were dense and moist, crispy outside and served with a nicely creamy rouille sauce for dipping. The sadly named B.E.T. “you love it” wedge is a salad so huge — made from half a head of iceberg — my dining companion and I split it. It came dressed with bacon, hardboiled egg, tomato, and not enough of Hostenske’s delicious buttermilk dressing. The chef’s smart touch here was a chilled plate drizzled with pesto sauce, with which I finished off the unadorned iceberg heart.

An order of slow­-roasted pot roast showed off what Hostenske does best. Its presentation was pure haute cuisine, its flavors straight from Mom’s kitchen. Just salty enough, this high­-end hunk was seared on the outside and melt­-in-­my-mouth tender. Served with lightly sweet carrots and a neatly grainy helping of mashed potatoes, this may be Ten’s truest offering.

The hand­-cut steak and fries, on the other hand, were a disaster. An inferior cut (the menu claims it was a Denver steak butchered by the chef himself — really?), this too­-chewy slab of beef was pinker than the medium-­rare I’d ordered. Overcooked frites offered a new low; who screws up French fries?

We ordered the entire dessert menu, both items endorsed by our gently polite server. The giant slab of classic chocolate cake offered many light, cocoa­-rich layers slathered in a delicious buttercream. The PB&J à la mode offered too much of a good thing: Candied peanuts and vanilla bean ice cream topped a superbly peanut buttery cookie; spoonfuls of strawberry jam made an already too­-sweet dessert positively tooth­-aching.

Our waitress at a subsequent lunch was less quiet. Jody was from Michigan and had recently gone camping with her son in their backyard. She doesn’t like Ohio but does have fond memories of Cedar Point. The pulled pork sandwich, in her unfortunate choice of words, was “awesome.”

In fact, it was the best thing we had for lunch that day. Served open-­face in a sheet­-cake pan (is anyone but me tired of clever cookery items used as serving platters?) and piled high with slightly sweet barbecued meat, its texture was appropriately chunky and not shredded, as so many other pulled porks tend to be. The pork had a strong, vinegary tang that was neatly balanced by a cool, creamy helping of coleslaw. But the best part about this sandwich was the bun, an impossibly fluffy, nicely grilled hunk of starch from Wildflower Bread Company, puffy and light and buttery.

An order of chicken noodle soup was neither here nor there, despite Jody’s warm promise that it would “rival my grandmother’s.” I’ll go this far: The soup arrived hot and in a bowl; it had noodles in it and it tasted like chicken. The spinach and green apple salad appeared to be bereft of any color of apple at all, unless the fruit was shredded into the inexplicable heap of slaw that was dumped onto a generous helping of spinach gone limp with too much vinaigrette dressing. Soft globs of goat cheese were the best part about this disappointing salad, although the fish I ordered with it — they were serving grouper that day — was nicely crispy and moist inside.

Cincinnati chili is among Ten’s few out­-of­-the­-ordinary dishes and, while I’ve always found spaghetti served with chili a repellant idea, this one was at least properly prepared, with tender macaroni, cheddar cheese, and heaps of chopped white onion (which you get if you order this hearty dish “four ways”). Hostenske’s single innovation here is a winner: His chili sauce is spiced with a nice bite of cinnamon, up front. More gentle surprises like this entrée might give Ten’s menu more of an edge, and make it a more estimable destination.

11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday; 2 to 11 p.m. Saturday
2501 East Camelback Road

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela