There’s a revolution afoot in the City of Presidents.
After a decade of developmental stagnation, it is now difficult to drive through Quincy Center without dodging orange construction cones, or millennials meandering mindlessly through traffic. Where are they headed, one wonders? Perhaps to West of Chestnut, the new $60 million apartment complex that touts amenities like a dog-washing spa and Nest thermostats that connect to the cloud. It’s just one of several buildings going up steps from the T. It seems Quincy, with its newly named “Hancock District,” is finally getting its due for its less-than-market-rate rentals and (relative) proximity to downtown Boston.
Situated amid the crush of construction is the Townshend, a new American restaurant that opened last May. It takes its name from the Townshend Acts, the laws the British foisted on colonists helping to foment the American Revolution. The acts themselves got their name from Charles Townshend, a vainglorious British politician known as “Champagne Charlie” for his habit of making intoxicated ramblings during sessions of Parliament.
In both regards, the Townshend is well named. It’s got a cocktail list that’s worth rambling on about, and it provides a level of hospitality that could signal a tipping point for Quincy as a dining destination. There’s a slate of new restaurants scheduled to open, and the team is planning a second location in the area — the beer-focused Belfry Hall — for the fall.
Josh Suprenant and Devin Adams are the captains of that team, and chef Bobby Sisson is at work in the Townshend kitchen. The trio comes with an impressive pedigree: Suprenant and Adams both had a hand in opening Island Creek Oyster Bar, then Adams left to tend cocktails at Barbara Lynch’s Drink. Sisson is also a Lynch alum, having worked under her at Sportello before stints at ICOB and Row 34. They bring a level of polish that would not feel out of place in Cambridge or the South End. And that’s the point. “A lot of the pride we take in here is in the city itself,” Suprenant says by phone. “Fifty feet outside of our door, two of the Founding Fathers are buried. The amount of history in this block is insane.”
The space itself is a bit wanting, and that’s not just because it’s currently in the heart of a development zone. It is situated in a glass-lined wing in the Quincy College building, with a set of doors that open, awkwardly, into the atrium. An undulating set of sound-absorbing panels on the ceiling provides the only visual interest to the 50-seat room, with a seasonal 25-seat patio; the panels hover over two long communal high-top tables that divide the bar area from the restaurant.
Here’s where I ramble on about that bar: The moderately priced wine list comes mostly from purveyors the team has worked with in the past, says Suprenant, and the beer selection is anchored by the eight New England drafts they keep on rotation. But it’s the cocktails that are serious business here. Palmer Matthews, a Quincy native who started as a barback at Drink, is gregarious in his role as bar manager. “Hello friend,” he says as he brings over one delightfully simple concoction after another, and it’s hard to tell whether he’s talking to you or to the glass.
Sip the California Airmail, a bright mix of rum, honey, lime, and sparkling wine that’s buoyed by a delicate bubble and sweetness, or the Bohemian, an effervescent gin, grapefruit, and elderflower combo that seems almost like a dessert: The color of cotton candy, it arrives in the kind of glass that posh kitties nosh from in Fancy Feast commercials. The Adams Green is the Townshend’s “signature sour”; the acidity of the lemon and vodka is balanced with the freshness of a cucumber shrub. And are those dried rosebuds in the June Bug (a mix of rosé, raspberry, lime, and vodka)? Indeed. They’re there for aromatics, says Matthews. Plus, he says, “they’re pretty.”
After one of these fetching drinks, the meal seems off to a fabulous start. So it’s offputting when the first bite you take is the house-made focaccia, which arrives in dry, narrow strips that are strangely both dense and crumbly. “I told our server the bread is terrible,” says the septuagenarian who sidles up to our table as we sit out on the patio, which serves as a de facto town square. (One server joins a table’s round of tequila shots by throwing back a dram of rosé.) “The haddock, however, was excellent,” says our charming new companion.
The gentleman is correct. Sisson was a fish butcher at Island Creek Oyster Bar, which might explain why he knows his sea creatures inside and out. The fried oysters are some of the best I’ve found outside of New Orleans, soaked in buttermilk for five hours, then lightly doused in herbs and flour. A few seconds in the fryer is all it takes, says Sisson, and the result is anything but greasy, with the flavor of the oyster intact. An appetizer of perfectly grilled shrimp arrive on a bed of nutty romesco sauce made from Marcona almonds, garlic, shallots, and tomato. The skin on a pair of pan-seared trout fillets is both crispy and savory, and coupled with a charred onion vinaigrette that’s tangy and sweet. And that haddock? Light and flaky with a tangy mustard-based crust, it is served with potatoes that are smashed then flash-fried until delightfully crisp.
Sisson developed his pasta-making prowess at Sportello, and he cuts his tagliatelle into pleasantly chewy threads. The accompanying bolognese gets its richness from the addition of chicken liver to the lamb, pork, and veal ragu — though you might grimace at the slick of oil left on the plate after you inhale the noodles. The hand-rolled gnocchi are seared, adding texture and complexity, then mingled with oyster mushrooms and fava beans. Steak looks luscious, presliced on a bed of wilted spinach.
There are some misses. The rice in the arancini is cooked just beyond al dente so that it’s nice and sticky, and the crust is firm and flavorful, but the heap of tomato sauce accompanying the dish doesn’t rise to the occasion. The turnips that snuggle under the trout are undercooked. The bone marrow feels like everything meat butter should be, but its accompanying sauce and supplements underwhelm. These might seem like quibbles, but in a place where the staff prides itself on attention to detail, you’d like to see that extended to the entire plate.
The Townshend recently announced the addition of pastry chef Kate Holowchik (Yvonne’s) to the team. Good move. During my visits, desserts aren’t plentiful, and the sorbets and ice creams are average. And, like the focaccia, apple cider-infused beignets are dense, with the consistency and sweetness of a fried plantain.
With its well-crafted menu, the Townshend is making its mark on Quincy. In the home of John Hancock (not to mention his eponymous new district), that’s saying something.Janelle Nanos can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @janellenanos.