How much you will like Townsman: a personality quiz.
Are you an aesthetically motivated soul, moved by art and architecture, deeply affected by your surroundings — the kind of person whose cubicle is decorated with framed prints, a plant (must be alive), a lamp you brought from home, and/or possibly a small altar to the Power that speaks loudest to you? You will love it.
The new restaurant, from chef Matt Jennings (Farmstead, Formaggio), looks just how you’d want it to — a sparkling space of many moods. Located in the Radian building on the edge of Chinatown, it is a series of connected areas that extends from a dim bar-and-lounge section to a crudo bar with a view of the kitchen, then on to the dining room. Framed prints featuring different cuts of meat hang on persimmon-colored walls, and customers eat from plates crafted by a local potter. The red Windsor chairs they sit on are shorthand: This restaurant shellacs tradition into something modern and bright.
Are you an intuitive, emotion-centric creature, wanting to feel all the feels and be touched by all the touches? You often bake for others? You enjoy getting and giving massages? You hand-pen thank you notes from a large collection of stationery? You relish talking to the person who cuts your hair? You regret that your dentist’s hands in your mouth prevent you from conversing? You will also love it.
In a city where the challenge of staffing restaurants is a frequent lament, Townsman lands gently, like a space pod from Planet Hospitality, hatch opening to reveal a fully formed dream team led by general manager Meredith Gallagher, formerly of Menton. (Also the wine director, she has created a list encompassing grower champagnes, a wider-than-usual selection of Rieslings, and premier cru Burgundy by the glass.) The mood is spirited, friendly, and relaxed, but it seems anyone on staff could answer any question you might ask; receive the wrong drink and someone notices almost as soon as you do.
If it is taste that drives you:
Do you choose mayo over mustard on your sandwich? Are you a believer in the maxim that everything is better with bacon? If poutine is on the menu, will you order it every? single? time? Is your food of choice often Italian, French, or comfort? Do you like things rich, mellow, and even? If so, you will like it very much.
Or are you prone to taste jags, a hot sauce habitue, a salt seeker at tables where no salt is provided? Do you prefer peaks and valleys to level ground? Does the crunch of a freshly butchered cucumber between your teeth make your blood thrum? Do you ask for a lemon wedge with your Bloody Mary mix on the airplane? Was your life changed when you realized you could get Bloody Mary mix on the airplane? Then you will like it.
Are you a misanthropic shut-in who shuns food? You will probably not like this restaurant.
The dishes from Jennings, co-chefs Matthew Leddy and Brian Young, and crew are good and getting better. They are competent, confident, sometimes inspired. They seduce on paper. A series of raw and cured compositions, laced with terms of food erotica: dukkah, harissa, green garlic, bresaola. Hors d’oeuvres from different corners of the world. Appetizers with a New England passport and a wicked case of wanderlust — clam chowder smoky with pork and silky with good farm cream, sprinkled with crisp chips of dehydrated squid ink; mussels once pulled from the cold waters of Casco Bay now swimming in curry broth with Thai sausage or chorizo verde. Big plates of beef, pork, and Amish farm hen experiencing some kind of rumspringa, removed from the bone and rolled into a tight log, one attached foot raised for a high-five. They often, if not always, taste as good as they sound.
The staff is very proud of that chicken. One server repeatedly calls it “magical” (he seems to call everything “magical”). It is recommended so enthusiastically it is hard to refuse, as if doing so would be personal. The skin is crisp. The meat is tender, almost too soft, like chicken that’s been simmering for soup. Accompaniments change with the season; the original came with chickpea gnocchi, flavorful braised greens, and black trumpet gravy you wouldn’t mind sipping on its own. The harissa rubbed on the meat is low-key. This is comfort food impressively gift-wrapped.
And things here are very well presented. The brown bread that begins the meal, baked in a can, comes served with one: The tin is inscribed with a retro “Pure Maple Syrup” logo and bears an image of a red cabin beside a tapped tree (very Au Pied de Cochon). The indent on top serves as a shallow dish for soft butter with coarse salt and togarashi spice. Bar manager Sean Frederick’s cocktails are eye candy, from the grassy hue of the Green Girder, made with celery juice, to the bright pink watermelon radishes that line the glass of the balanced Spring Spritz. Plateaux come piled with shellfish and charcuterie; rounds of gray slate display thin-sliced meats, smears of mustard, colorful piles of pickles, and golden biscuits beside golden-brown fried pickles.
But the fried pickles on one platter are cold. The terrines on another are bland, all unctuous texture without enough intensity of or variation in flavor. A lamb crudo is beautifully arrayed with green harissa, mint, and crisped sunchokes, but the whole thing is mild; the meat barely reads as lamb. Beef crudo is more muscular, bright and rich with capers and confit egg yolk.
On an earlier menu, yellowfin with chicharrones, grapefruit, and black garlic sounded like an irresistible combination of flavors and textures, but it arrived bland, underseasoned, the proportions off. A more-recent fish crudo — hamachi with rhubarb, beets, and (lots of) green garlic — hits closer to the mark.
A Caesar salad is composed of brassicas, but the assertive greens are drowning in overly potent dressing, draped in an entire school of boquerones. It is the first Caesar I’ve ever encountered that suffered from too many anchovies.
If bright and light dishes don’t always land, savory, meaty ones generally do. (Vegetarians don’t fare well here, although a server says they are happy to go off menu and create something upon request.) Townsman serves a grand version of deviled eggs, face down in a creamy sauce with briny fried capers and crisped chicken skin. Pierogi are filled with tender beef cheek (and apparently apple, too, although you can’t taste it). Seafood boudin and biscuits with shrimp gravy, now off the menu, was a smart and successful marriage of New England and New Orleans.
Pork dishes are a strength — from an earlier version with chicory, pear mustard, and apple vinegar to a more-recent suckling pig with grapes, fiddleheads, and pea johnnycakes, the last a clever seasonal salute to Jennings’s time in Rhode Island.
And pasta dishes are a highlight. I enjoy the current menu’s carrot creste di gallo, orange and frilled like cockscombs, served with chicken sugo. I liked an earlier semolina bigoli even better, long, chewy tubes tangled together with plump snails and sausage.
Some of Townsman’s best moments come at the end of the meal. Pastry chef Meghan Thompson creates desserts that fall on the savory end of the sweet spectrum. Candy cap ice cream tastes like maple mushrooms, with a green drizzle of chervil and apple vinaigrette, an oat crisp protruding from the scoop. Buttermilk cheesecake comes with excellent bourbon-date ice cream, bits of honeycomb, crushed gingersnap, and candied kumquats — it’s just a few grains of sugar away from being a cheese plate, and a very nice one at that. A chocolate and almond terrine, with its pure coconut sorbet and crisp bites of meringue, is one of the best desserts I’ve had all year.
I want all of the dishes at Townsman to stand out like this. Each time I visit, more of them do. The restaurant is a polished package, with something for almost everyone. Misanthropes and vegetarians may disagree.
★ ★ ★ ★ Extraordinary
★ ★ ★ Excellent
★ ★ Good
(No stars) Poor