Wild Irish Ride
Call it Boston’s first gastropub. Okay, a couple of local contenders have tried to lay claim to that Brit-import title, meaning pub grub made with real ingredients by real cooks who throw in a few of their own dishes, too. And, yes, Townsend’s is in Hyde Park, which is so close to Milton and so far from downtown that I’d say it’s hard to think of it as Boston (if I weren’t so scared that the mayor, its most famous resident, would boot me to, say, Cambridge with the rest of the snobs). And the menu does range a bit too freely in its Irish/French/Asian mix.
But Townsend’s surpasses all other comers with its fantastic array of draft ales and stouts, some rock-solid dishes, and, most important, its secret to success: the Irish owners, Michael and Rosaleen Tallon, who are there every night and make Townsend’s as welcoming and merry as you dream your local pub could ever be. One night a friend driving to the restaurant from Mass General got hopelessly lost, something that’s easy to do. Mike stayed on the phone with her for a good 20 minutes to be absolutely sure she found her way. When she arrived, she gave him a hug. The lilt in his voice, she said, was huggable all by itself.
You can spot the British Isles theme from afar. The window boxes in the clean, bright double storefront in Hyde Park’s commercial center overflow with pretty flowers and trailing ivy, as if Townsend’s were entering one of those pub competitions that keep Britain’s watering holes looking like hanging gardens. The interior, with its cozy plum-colored walls, high ceilings, dramatically tall stone fireplace, and long row of taps behind the bar, is just as clearly the platonic pub ideal.
The Irish core is what makes Townsend’s, already exceptionally pleasant, into something unlike almost any restaurant or even pub in and around Boston (the closest analogue is Matt Murphy’s in Brookline Village, which serves fresh and simple fare in a clean-lined but still-traditional Irish setting). People are often shocked when I say that the most underrated (and in many ways my favorite) European cuisine is—gasp!—Irish. That’s for the unparalleled quality of the ingredients, particularly the world’s best milk and cream, great cheese and vegetables, and rich-flavored meat, and for the simplicity of the presentation that showcases them.
Townsend’s wants to have a bit of something for everyone, including families, couples who want a glass of wine, and mates out for a pint or two. Some of the food is too fussy, and too much is Asian-tinged—an influence the executive chef, Stephen Hoddinott, picked up in his years with Jeff Fournier, the enterprising owner of 51 Lincoln. Hoddinott does make pretty much everything by hand, though, and cares a lot about ingredients, especially meat and potatoes, which is where every good Irish cook begins. He’s a dab hand at frying fish for fish and chips and roasting chicken and lamb, also Irish requisites. And he’s no slouch at wings, either.
If Townsend’s has a marquee dish, it might be the roast chicken. Hoddinott says he just wanted it to be true to his English heritage, and in its complete homeyness his bird is different from and maybe better than anybody else’s in town (and a bargain at $19). The crisp skin tastes of lemon and parsley, and the gravy, based on his mother’s, is what you want your own mom’s to be: a rich golden brown, nicely thickened with old-fashioned flour and some butter, and full of unadulterated chicken flavor. It flows over poutine ($5), too, the generally icky—very icky—Canadian “treat” of french fries and fried cheese curd, usually slathered with terrible, gluey brown gravy. Hoddinott’s version, by contrast, shows off his skill with the fryer, and he uses Keen’s Irish cheddar instead of cheese curds. (Really, though, anything would be a success with this gravy.)
The aforementioned chicken comes with champ, the Irish version of mashed potatoes, whipped with cream and butter and enlivened with scallion. An Irish cook’s reputation rests on the dish, and Rosaleen Tallon told Chef Stephen, as she and her husband call him, exactly how to make it. He doesn’t use fancy heirlooms, just Idahoes. It’s so good you’ll want a side of champ ($4) no matter what you order.
Lamb kebab ($22) may not be Irish (even if lamb is), but it’s all-purpose pleasing, with a big portion of meat and a big flavor that draws on zahtar, the pungent Middle Eastern herb rub; fat Israeli couscous; and tzatziki, the Greek cucumber-garlic-yogurt sauce. For the Irish touch, there’s Guinness in a lamb-stock reduction the cooks call lacquer, which they brush on just before serving. You won’t notice the beer, as you likely won’t the Smithwick’s ale in the steamed mussels ($8); the depth of flavor and care for the prime ingredient, though, is plain in both dishes. It’s likewise in the Berkshire pork tenderloin ($22), marvelously sweet in itself and from the addition of a bit of molasses in a chicken-stock jus, served with a chunk of roasted sweet potato as beautiful and impressive as the meat.
Grilled salmon on a cedar plank ($21), though, was dry, flavorless, and not helped by the orange-and-mirin-spiked soy sauce on the side or the gummy black rice mounted high with butter. The addition of asparagus tempura made for an odd plate. Salmon belly got a tempura treatment in a similarly odd “seafood trio” appetizer ($11), the salmon marinated in ginger, lime, and jalapeño and incongruously served with a pâté of smoked bluefish and cream cheese, and shrimp marinated in a jalapeño-ginger-lemongrass Thai paste and grilled on a sugarcane skewer. (The frying, again, isn’t the problem—it’s fine, as shown in the un-gussied-up fish and chips ($17) in a Berkshire porter batter, with tartar sauce and spiked ketchup.) The shepherd’s pie ($19), too, strayed overly far from the hearty, humble original for my taste: a Bolognese sauce with beef and lamb instead of pork, separated from its liquid and packed into a mold over, strangely, a corn-cake arepa, the whole thing topped with piped-out duchess potatoes. Give me mashed taters!
For dessert, there’s ice cream ($3) from Jeff Fournier’s Citrio, a catering and takeout shop across from 51 Lincoln. (Alternatively, you could head down the street to Ron’s, Hyde Park’s legendary candlepin -bowling/ice cream parlor.) Or, given the marvelous array of beers on tap, you might want to adopt the Brit custom of ending with a savory instead of a sweet. May I suggest the fat, drumstick-only “lollipop wings” ($11)? They come with a garlicky blue cheese dressing that’s exactly what you might get after dinner in Ireland or England. And then there is the superior glaze. Hoddinott adapted the recipe from a youthful stint at an old-fashioned diner, and learned a few tricks: Make it sweet (he uses balsamic vinegar) and not too hot (a touch of the Buffalo-mandated Frank’s hot sauce). The real secret? Pounds of cold butter to cut the heat. Any Irish cook would completely approve.
81 Fairmount Ave., Hyde Park, 617-333-0306