Restaurant Review: Towne

The food may be hit-or-miss, but everything about Lydia Shire’s new Back Bay restaurant is big, brassy, and bold.

towne back bay

Photograph by Keller + Keller

THERE’S SOMETHING UNSTOPPABLE about chef Lydia Shire. She likes flash, and flashy local businessmen she can team up with to create huge, pulsating restaurants. She’s done it before at Biba, now closed, and at Scampo, in the Liberty Hotel. And she’s done it again at Towne Stove and Spirits, a restaurant carved into the Hynes Convention Center. Everyone involved here is a notable Boston celeb: The businessman is Patrick Lyons, Shire’s partner in Scampo. Jasper White is the second consulting chef, and though the project was hailed as a Jasper-Lydia reunion, it became much more a Lydia-Patrick production. “It’s really Lydia’s baby,” White told me of the menu. He helped design the kitchen and comes in about one night a week to help man the fish grill; the wholesale arm of his Summer Shack (which “I have to keep my eye on,” White says) supplies Towne with its excellent fish.

[sidebar]Lyons has created a space so popular that on our first visit we were stopped at the main doors by a phalanx of bouncers, who demanded to know whether we had a reservation before they would even let us into the crushingly loud street-level bar. We did, but were still kept waiting an hour to be seated, hovering around the host stand with a lot of other irritated diners. Other evenings were much smoother, but it was a rocky introduction. Sit upstairs, which is spacious and, especially in the glassed-in front room overlooking Boylston Street, almost quiet. The service, overseen by old Shire hands, is generally enthusiastic and good, though on the first night almost every dish was brought to the wrong diner.

Shire has always liked big flavors, and her freewheeling style draws on food from other countries. At Biba it was India, Asia, and Latin America; at Scampo, it’s Italy. Towne pulls from all those, if not the olde New England you might expect from the name. The menu, dotted with random flags, is supposedly designed to look like a map, but is so haphazardly laid out that I completely overlooked one section (“wood-fired rotisserie”) at three out of three dinners. If you find your way around the overcrowded menu, though, and avoid the misses, you can tear through some terrific dishes with the kind of excited, overstimulated gluttony I remember from Biba. (You’ll pay big prices, too: Most entrées hover around $30.) And as with Biba and Scampo, what will keep Towne going is the force of the scene and the exuberance of Shire’s personality as it comes through in her food.

Main courses are stronger than first courses, and meat is where you’ll find the most hits. “Pig chop,” sautéed with star anise and served with ginger Wuxi pork riblets ($28), is accompanied by fried milk, a custardy combination of milk, cornstarch, and egg that’s been chilled till it sets, then cut into cubes and fried in tempura batter. The plate was pure umami, an irresistible blend of soy, sweet pork meat, and fat — particularly the riblets, which every restaurant should serve. Colorado lamb chops ($39) are stunningly expensive but easily the best lamb I’ve had in a long time; they’re marinated in yogurt and cilantro and cooked in Shire’s beloved tandoori oven, something she’s used with excellent results at Biba and Scampo. “Duck crisp” ($28) might as well have been steak — the char on the soy-marinated leg and breast was so strong and the meat was so hearty and good, if a bit tough. All of these are won’t-go-wrong meals.

Everything gets less predictable from there. Swordfish “pup” steak ($29) is so-called, the waiters explained, because it’s taken from smaller swordfish. It had the strong flavor of the fresh swordfish I remember from my childhood, not like the firm, expensive, indistinguishable white fish restaurants serve these days. But while it was perfectly juicy one night, it was dry another. The white-clam risotto under it was pasty, but the clams had great flavor. Clams are great wherever they come up on the menu, in fact. Executive chef Mario Capone told me he uses several sizes: large countnecks for the risotto, and small cockles in the superb clam linguine ($17), which you can order either white and garlicky or (my personal favorite) with a lively red sauce. The cockles were the best part of a cod “bullet” ($27) — again named for the size of the center-cut fillet — wrapped with thin-sliced potatoes, cooked in clarified butter, and overgarnished with oily tartar and chowder sauces that obliterated whatever flavor the fish might have had.

Then there are the Shire tics, old and new. Though she’s kept her love of salt in check, the chef has given free rein to her buttery tendencies. Puffy paratha bread with green onion and curried cauliflower ($8) has clarified butter in the dough to make it flaky; it’s sautéed in even more of it. The lobster roll ($24) features meat and a homemade bun both soaked in melted butter; fettuccine Alfredo ($16) — billed as “the truth as it was invented for our friend Paul Pierce,” because Shire often serves it to her pal Pierce, and that’s the way he likes it — is dressed in plain melted butter and grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, no cream. In both dishes, you can hardly taste the just-okay lobster or nice noodles, thanks to the heavy butter coating. And there’s unexpected sweetness, a newer Shire tic, which appears in both the pork and the duck. It didn’t get in the way there, but it did wreck a starter of lobster popovers ($10), which were filled with rubbery little nubs of lobster meat doused in syrup.

To fill out the tour of the map, or just to offer something for everyone, Shire has put pizzas similar to Scampo’s on the menu, thin-crusted and better-flavored at Towne because she has a wood-fired grill. They’re dominated by the taste of the garlic-shallot oil she brushes on the cooked dough before putting on equally strong-flavored toppings, like mushroom duxelles with scallion and fresh white cheese ($16).

Better are the Scampo-style pastas. Along with the clam linguine — served with a huge wedge of garlic bread, it’s a meal — the best first course is the ravioli ($17). Half of them are a green spinach pasta filled with ricotta, and the other half are plain pasta filled with braised beef; they’re both dressed in a tomato-bacon-chili sauce. And Shire takes a brief excursion to England for a side dish of yellow split peas braised with vegetables and finished with diced red onion and parsley ($6). They sound dull, but they’re delicious, and remind me of how good Shire is with legumes.

I’m leaving out a lot, simply because there’s a lot there to leave out. You won’t leave hungry — you never do at a Lydia restaurant. But you can’t go without dessert, by pastry chef Maggie Scales, and if it’s just one, make it the brown-sugar angel food cake with caramel and maple-sugar cotton candy ($10). It’s guaranteed pleasure. Hit the menu right, and the rest of the meal will be, too.

Towne Stove and Spirits, 900 Boylston St., Boston, 617-247-0400,