In the postrecession restaurant world, French cuisine was prematurely left for dead. The emergence of Townsend, however, reaffirms the timeless virtues a carefully measured, updated take on fine dining can still hold.
Escargots? Rabbit pot-au-feu? Foie gras mousse? They’re all served at chef Townsend “Tod” Wentz’s homey restaurant on East Passyunk Avenue with such understated and confident elegance, the cooking feels almost retro — though refreshingly so against the backdrop of a trendsetting dining strip.
Wentz isn’t a throwback to Escoffier. That’s clear if you’ve visited his lively Italian BYOB, A Mano (another personal favorite), or his newest venture, Oloroso, a Spanish restaurant that recently opened near Washington Square. His high-level fluency in a variety of cuisines is impressive.
But at his signature restaurant Townsend, he’s clearly channeling an homage to the modern French aesthetic of Jean-Marie Lacroix — albeit stripped of the pricier, more precious flourishes of Lacroix at the Rittenhouse, where Wentz was the opening exec-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 luscious beef tartare, its hand-minced filet zippy with Dijon, capers, and Worcestershire, let’s roll. A tiny one-egg omelet, ethereally fluffed in a 30-second sleight-of-pan and set beneath a garlic parsley cream jeweled with lump crab, is an appetizer badge of chef honor. Delicately steamed black bass over briny cockles and a vivid green froth of pureed zucchini and basil harmonized to the tune of summer.
In an era 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 multilevel storefront. Though the cocktails are always excellent (try Off the Coast of Florida, a breezy Daiquiri variation), wine is the prime libation at Townsend, with global small producers carefully collected into one of the city’s best lists by sommelier and general manager Lauren Harris.
How about a crisp white Jacquère from the Savoie for those perfect broiled oysters in Pernod cream? A floral Turkish white for the Med-theme squash blossom stuffed with ratatouille. An earthy Stellenbosch Syrah for roast lamb with chanterelles, also good for crispy-skinned duck with morels and lots of shaved black truffles.
A pretty Rhône Cinsault worked well for masterful rabbit served three ways — legs braised into pot-au-feu, loin rolled with mushrooms in a bacon-wrapped roulade, liver whipped to a gamy schmear on toast.
For a dessert of airy Pavlova meringue or decadent chocolate soufflé, try a fascinating sweet wine from Tenerife. Then again, I’d get the cheese platter once more 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 — reimagined, along with fine dining, for the 21st century.