Ten Penny | Restaurant Reviews | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Ten Penny

This Downtown restaurant offers an appealing old-school "industrial" atmosphere with a contemporary American menu

Ten Penny Burger, with watercress, red-onion jam, bacon and a sunny-side-up egg
Ten Penny Burger, with watercress, red-onion jam, bacon and a sunny-side-up egg

Named in honor of some old nails discovered during construction, Ten Penny is a restaurateur's latest run at spinning Pittsburgh's Rust Belt heritage into gold. The space is dominated by an aesthetic that's less postindustrial chic than outright industrial throwback: Massive old wood beams and columns set the tone for rustic shelves framed with cast-iron gas pipes and stacked to the ceiling with jars, cans and boxes of dry goods. The effect is reminiscent of some lost Strip District grocer. Massive tables are mounted on bases adjustable with iron gears, and many Edison light bulbs hang from the ceiling.

Amid this, the cushy grey leather sofas which serve as booth seating are a touch of luxe. Yet, the food on offer isn't a Gilded Era throwbacks; there are no oysters piled high alongside turtle soup. Instead the menu caters to current tastes, offering middle-road contemporary American fare that's no longer exciting, but still fresh and enjoyable, in part because it relies on quality ingredients, straightforwardly prepared. No hocus-pocus in the kitchen here.

That cruciferous darling, Brussels sprouts, has become de rigueur on such a menu. Ten Penny's were very dark without achieving actual crispness, perhaps due to too much of the sweet Jack Daniels balsamic glaze (which wasn't itself objectionable). Chewy bits of bacon brought savor and texture, and crumbles of goat cheese added creamy counterpoint, but it was not enough to raise these sprouts above the very high standard other restaurants have recently set.

Seared gnocchi appeared handmade and were delightfully fluffy and light. Young watercress that had been flash-fried, such that the stems and edges were lightly crisped even as they retained their leafy freshness, nicely complemented the little dumplings. Some goat cheese melted gently into the sage-brown-butter dressing. This was a dish of texture as much as flavor.

Beet salad, made with big beet slices, the same cress and goat cheese, and marinated yellow tomatoes, was pretty as a spring garden and held together with a light apple-butter vinaigrette. Something more assertive was necessary against the sweetness of the beets and tomatoes, though, and we found the stems of the greens too prominent.

The traditional burger (there is also a Ten P burger with a fried egg and lots of other extras) was big, juicy and flavorful, with a lightly toasted bun that was up to the task and a thick layer of melted cheddar. But for $14, we would have liked those extras (which will run you $16). At least, the thick-cut fries were excellent: super-fluffy inside, golden crisp outside with some deeper brown edges offering more intense flavor.

Margherita flatbread subbed whipped ricotta for buffalo mozzarella, an innovation we heartily endorse, as the thick, creamy yet mild cheese created a distinct textural layer between the thin, crisp crust and the tomato slices. Oregano-garlic oil added flavor, both enriched and buffered by the cheese. Flatbreads usually succeed or fail on the quality of their crusts and ingredients, so we commend the Ten Penny kitchen for pushing the envelope in such a tasteful — and tasty — way.

We found similar attention to detail in Angelique's pork chop. Ordered "cooked through," a thick chop arrived that had been butterflied, briefly griddled on the interior, and then properly grilled top and bottom. The result was meat that was cooked to temperature throughout, without getting overdone or dried out at the surface. Indeed, this was as succulent a chop as we've had anywhere. Its accompanying vodka-pancetta cream, which we'd imagined as a sauce, instead seemed to be almost melded to the chop, more like a coating, so that it subtly infused every bite.

Alas, the kitchen's conscientiousness stopped short of Jason's American clam bake. The components were largely traditional — littleneck clams, mussels, shrimp, fish, sweet Italian sausage, corn and potatoes. The dish had been slightly modified to include crawfish, admittedly more practical than lobster for a single serving, if a bit messier to shell, and haricots vert, a welcome spot of green. Steamed in microbrew from Philly and spiked with some spice, the flavors were generally quite good. But the potatoes were close to raw, the clams too chewy and "crusty" bread was inexplicably served inside the lidded cast-iron pot such that it, too, steamed before reaching the table. Jason felt like the Ancient Mariner with all that good broth but no edible means to sop it.

Ten Penny has forged (seemingly if not literally) a highly appealing atmosphere from warehouse furnishings. The kitchen attempts the same alchemy with fundamental ingredients. It doesn't always succeed — and at these prices, it's hard not to expect something a little closer to perfection. But where it does, it creates textures as pleasurable as flavors.

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