Restaurant Review: Townsman
Matt Jennings made a national name for himself in Providence, where for 10 years his Farmstead restaurant was the place I told many New York friends to stop on their way up or back. They’d invariably write me to rave after they did. Jennings and his wife, baker Kate Jennings, met at Formaggio Kitchen—as good a training ground as any in the country for learning where to source the best ingredients. The local produce and world-class cheese they found for their restaurant and food shop resulted in fresh, distinctive fare—and a national reputation in a city that seldom gets the recognition it should.
When I read that the two were coming to Boston to open a big place of their own, I assumed that only their ambition for stardom on a bigger stage could wrest them away from Rhode Island. I was wrong. Jennings and his wife both grew up here, he told me after I’d dined a few times at Townsman, their restaurant in the new Radian apartment high-rise where Chinatown and the Financial District meet. With two children, they’d decided to take advantage of the local supply of grandparents and childcare.
Jennings, then, is an authentic Townsman. His ability to procure great cheeses and cured meats from all over the world, and to make his own superior terrines, is abundantly clear on his opening menu. What’s less clear is the vision he’s bringing to his food or how he intends to focus it. Will it be local, as implied by the moist, blackstrap-sweet quadrants of brown bread (usually called Boston brown bread) that come with maple-honey whipped butter cleverly served atop fat ridged cans of maple syrup? Meghan Thompson, Townsman’s pastry chef, adapted the recipe from Fannie Farmer, whose version, Jennings said, was “way too sweet.” And there’s a chowder ($10), based on squid rather than clams, that includes end bits from a well-curated set of American hams ($18 for a tasting board) that deepen but don’t overwhelm it, with enough cream from Mapleline Farm to make it seem more France than New England. The terrines on the “house terrine board” ($32) are also French in inspiration (German, too—Jennings had a German grandmother who cooked a lot, he says), and show the chef’s knack for coarse, garlicky country pork terrine, nicely gelatinous head cheese, and fish rillettes.
Boston? New England? Not really. The menu is idiosyncratic, with some of the Asian influence you might expect from the bamboo installation—part of Chinatown Park—outside of the Radian. To bring the park inside, Townsman’s designers painted the Windsor chairs red to match the park’s steel trellises. But that’s about where the Chinese references end. Mussels ($18) are served with homemade Thai sausage, in a “red curry” that to my palate tasted more like a green curry, with unexpected peanuts in the sauce and a good bit of fire. The dish, Jennings told me, was inspired by stories of home cooking from a Thai parking attendant. Seared Cape scallops ($18), meanwhile, are accompanied by a Thai-flavored tom yum sauce featuring galangal and lemongrass. “What is this food? How do you describe it?” a literal-minded guest asked one of the friendly, if busy, servers. She’d just had a roasted-almond caesar salad ($14) and was enjoying the creste di gallo ($24), a very Italian pasta dish with toasted bread crumbs and Italian provolone you can’t find outside of Formaggio Kitchen. “Eclectic,” was the best the server could do. “What the chef likes.”
Jennings has a predilection for thick, hummus-weight purées and sauces. A “spring salad” ($12), for instance, was a plate-size smear of carrot purée under a few nicely blanched favas, peas, radishes, and turnips; it was pretty, but really a composed-vegetable plate, not a salad. “Pickles and dips” ($7) were a few pickles with two deep pools of hummus—one of them sweet pea and the other peanut. The word “glop” appears a lot in my notes, particularly in reference to a green scoop of fresh fava purée and stracciatella ($12), that mozzarella-cream combination. Jennings says he’ll be taking it off the menu as the last of his supply of locally made cheese from Fiore di Nonno, which is sadly closing shop, runs out. It’s great glop, but Townsman gives you a lot of it.
Some of Jennings’s ideas are striking: He boils peanuts like other legumes and uses them as a thickener (if you have an allergy, tell the server early on and the kitchen will adjust); he devils eggs by barely hard-boiling and quartering them, then puts them face-down on a thick pool of mustard–red pepper sauce, as if they were an egg version of vitello tonnato, and tops them with little squares of crisped chicken skin ($7). He colors homemade pasta—the cockscomb-shaped creste di gallo—with carrot juice in the dough, resulting in a dish that delighted guests at every meal. In a winter preparation, he rubs the interior of a boned chicken ($49, for two) with harissa before poaching and deep-frying it, leaving on the tiny claw feet, as seems to be in vogue. But Jennings seems loath to let his carefully sourced products shine on their own. Even when he powerfully and simply extends the flavors of a main ingredient, he has a tendency to keep colorizing it.
The best dishes know where to stop, and they’re mostly meat-based. A platter of lamb ribs ($26) with maple-rhubarb barbecue sauce, warm potato salad, and cider slaw was perhaps the most successful offering because it had clarity; Jennings roasts the ribs until they’re blackened enough to pick up and gnaw, and gives the sauce acid from the roasted rhubarb. Hanger steak ($31) had clarity, too, with the frankly chewy, sinewy, grass-fed meat nicely set off by a romesco sauce, seductively thick from the nuts Jennings expertly deploys in sauces.
Desserts by Thompson, originally a savory chef, nearly all include vegetables, making them very idiosyncratic. “Eat your vegetables!” a server chirped as she put down a thick, starchy sumac lemon pudding with peas and carrots ($10). Candy cap mushroom ice cream with chervil, apple vinegar, and steel-cut oatmeal ($10) is another idea that falls under the “interesting” category. Classicists will be happy with a Tcho-chocolate-and-almond terrine ($11), dense and bittersweet and made more potent with espresso.
“Interesting” is more the way I’d characterize Jennings’s debut here than, say, “exciting.” But he’s terrific with meat; the bar serves cocktails with house-made infusions and liquors chosen as carefully as any of the cheeses and hams, and a long counter gives you a front-row view of the kitchen action; and Jennings is strong on powerful flavors. When he harnesses them with a firmer hand, Townsman will be the Boston landmark his arrival downtown promises.
120 Kingston St., Boston, 617-993-0750, townsmanboston.com.
Deviled eggs • $7
Lamb ribs • $26
Creste di gallo pasta • $24
House terrine board • $32
Critic Corby Kummer—an editor at the Atlantic and author of The Pleasures of Slow Food—has been reviewing Greater Boston’s top restaurants in our pages since 1997.