Philly's gastropub boom was a part of this hungry city's recession reply - beer-soaked, boldly flavored and casual - to the demise of glitzy haute cuisine. But in these postrecession days of heady restaurant growth, a new generation of more refined projects has lately emerged, including one notable newcomer in Townsend that reaffirms the timeless virtues that carefully measured fine dining can still hold.
Not surprisingly, it is the creation of a chef who's cooked his way through the entire roller-coaster cycle of recent culinary tumult. Townsend "Tod" Wentz has gone from the haute-hotel heights of the Four Seasons to temporary refuge in New York, followed by a worthy gastropub bounce-back stint at McCrossen's Tavern, where he helped transform the longtime tappie with roasted marrow bones, craft beers, and slow-braised oxtail pasta into a bar with one of the better menus in town.
For his debut as a chef-owner on East Passyunk, however, Wentz has clearly embraced a return to his fine-dining roots. After a half-decade of increasingly bare-wood tabletops, there is linen beneath diners' elbows here, and it doesn't feel stuffy, lending instead a softened comfort and golden glow to the rambling rooms of the homey, multilevel storefront that was previously Salt & Pepper (and then Sophia's for five minutes).
Yes, there are a handful of on-trend craft beers. And there are au courant cocktail riffs, too, deftly mixed with balance and esoteric bitters by skilled former Lemon Hill hand Keith Raimondi at the convivial ground-floor bar, where the deep cherry wood counter makes for convivial solo eating. But the prime libation at Townsend is clearly good wine - mostly relegated to third-priority drinking in Philly in recent years - with small Euro producers and fair pricing (all below triple markups) carefully chosen by sommelier Lauren Harris to pair with Wentz's food. Which he unapologetically calls "French."
How about a crisp white Jacquère from Jean Perrier in the Savoie for the broiled oysters? The wine's bright citrus and gentle tropical notes cut through the soft brine and richness of the Pernod cream scented with fennel and bacon that glazed the delicately roasted Cape May Salts. The red berry kiss of Austrian Zweigelt rosé, vibrantly fresh on draft, brightened an earthy ragout of snappy blue foot mushrooms tossed with tender gnocchi. I'd get the cheese platter again simply for an excuse to order a pour of the Rare Wine Co.'s "Baltimore Rainwater" Madeira - delicately tart, nutty and dry, true to historic style. So, so 19th century.
Escargot? Rabbit pot-au-feu? Foie gras mousse? They're served here with such understated and confident elegance that the cooking feels only vaguely retro, though refreshingly so against the context of Philly's hottest dining strip. But Wentz isn't exactly a throwback to Escoffier. A throwback to the modern French aesthetic of Jean-Marie Lacroix is more like it - albeit stripped of the pricier, more precious flourishes of Lacroix at the Rittenhouse, where Wentz was the opening executive sous. The focus at Townsend is on crisp techniques and clear flavors that pay homage to prime ingredients with finesse rather than high-concept tricks: "I've seen the wheel reinvented, and it wasn't that good," Wentz says. "We're doing the old wheel."
If the old wheel means a perfect pedestal of luscious beef tartare, its hand-minced filet zippy with Dijon, capers and Worcestershire, I say let's roll. The potted foie gras mousse, whipped light with a boozy echo of brandy beneath a fruity cap of quince marmalade, dissolves on the tongue like creamy liver silk.
Wentz isn't averse to more contemporary moves. But sea urchin and seaweed butter only add supporting notes, their soft marine tang bolstering a citrus sauce that frames beautifully sweet Barnegat Light scallops like sunshine. A marinated hamachi tartare taps Asian accents, too. But the cilantro, toasted sesame, lime zest, and furikake spice never overwhelm the raw fish, bobbing and weaving nuttiness, citrus, and lingering spice through sweet bursts of apples and crunchy shallots in complex, ever-changing bites.
The culinary pedigree particularly shines through in delicate treatments of seafood. Gorgeously browned cod is butter-basted in a blazing hot blue-steel pan, then paired with brandade potatoes mashed with quick-salted fish and a vermouth cream tinted pale green with tangy sorel. A thick slice of crispy-skinned striped bass is almost meaty against ribboned red peppers bathed in sherry vinegar, veal stock, and dusky smoked paprika.
Wentz's most elegant seafood inspiration, though, was an appetizer of black bass, steamed atop cockles and a vivid green froth of pureed zucchini and basil. With snappy zucchini batons and juicy bursts of roasted cherry tomatoes tumbling amid the brothy, briny jewels of tiny clams and flaky fish, the dish's textures and flavors harmonized a perfect tune to summer.
There are worthy meats, too, although done with an edgier, cheffy sensibility. Crispy sweetbreads and a tender slice of veal tongue were topped with a classic gribiche of minced hard-boiled eggs and capers amped with Spanish boquerones. Rabbit is masterfully served three ways - legs braised into a soulfully tender pot-au-feu, loin rolled with mushrooms into a crisp, bacon-wrapped roulade, liver whipped into a gamey schmear on toast. Even the chicken is elevated with some old-school moves, the golden roasted breast paired with a medallion of ballotine (boned leg meat bound with chicken mousse inside a crispy tube of speck), alongside wild mushrooms and sweet peas shined in Madeira gravy.
Our eminently professional server, Megin Mowry, guided us impressively through every course with spot-on, well-reasoned wine pairings, including Mon Bon Plaisir from Domaine du Chapitre, an affordable Rhône blend of mostly cinsault that was the ideal mix of earthiness and dark fruit for those meats.
There's also a tempting list of fortified and sweet wines to consider for the cheese, a worthy trio of oozy Robiola Due Latte, Leonora Spanish goat, and Wisconsin blue that was almost even more memorable for the elaborate fruitscape of cantaloupe bridges, Ranier cherries, figs, and jewellike berry clusters that framed it.
But save room for the two relics Townsend serves for dessert. One, a Pavlova, is airy and light, its crisp cloud of baked vanilla meringue softened by a tangy-sweet halo of rhubarb compote. The other is pure flashback decadence, a chocolate soufflé to share that reminded me instantly of the last place I ate one: the Fountain.
"I'm not sure [Four Seasons pastry chef] Eddie Hales would approve," says Wentz, conceding the source of his recipe, and, perhaps, the souffle's slightly too-crunchy crust.
But I disagree. Hales and all of those who recall the best flavors of Philly's prerecession grandeur will take heart that at least some of them still live on in style.
Townsend "Tod" Wentz discusses Townsend at www.inquirer.com/labanreviews. Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan hosts an online chat at 2 p.m. Tuesdays at www.inquirer.com/labanchats.