If you had noticed the many accolades accruing to chef/owner Matt Jennings of Providence restaurant Farmstead—three Beard Award near-misses for Best Chef Northeast, three wins at Cochon 555, endless write-ups in national food magazines—you might have asked, “Why can’t we get players like that?” Luckily for Bostonians, Jennings closed Farmstead last year to open the new Townsman in a hundred-seat space at the edge of the Financial District. What he’s doing there might just restore jaded food geeks’ faith in shopworn terms like “farm-to-table” and “snout-to-tail.”
Out of the gate, Jennings excels at the venerable French and Italian traditions of curing, smoking, pickling and reshaping underused animal parts, especially from pigs. His New England charcuterie ($18 for two selections) is a pretty array of his own salumi, like delicate, well-marbled coppa and peppery, dense salami with fine bread-and-butter pickles, Kewpie-thickened biscuits and rustic mustard. Even more gorgeous is his house terrine board ($29), a dazzling assortment of pâtés, including dense, creamy duck-liver mousse, a country pâté of chicken, miso and carrot, a firmer, finer terrine of rabbit and hazelnuts, and a ferocious carmine blood-pudding mortadella. These alternate with carefully paired relishes (like cranberry/celery), pickles (of fennel, enoki and long beans), Concord grape jelly and candied nuts. American hams ($18 for two selections) showcase noteworthy Kentucky products like a wondrous melt-in-the-mouth lardo from Denham’s Curehouse and a vivid prosciutto from Scott Hams.
Townsman devotes much energy to raw preparations, starting with perfect oysters ($18 for six) from nearby inlets like Katama, Pleasant Bay and Pemaquid. Yellowfin crudo ($16) nicely contrasts a sashimi-like cut of fish with the salty snap of chicharrones, counterpointed with tart grapefruit and mildly funky black garlic. Lamb crudo ($15) is elegantly plated as a narrow oblong of tartare bisecting a circular swirl of green harissa crowned with fresh mint and crisp sunchoke chips. Its refinement makes the conceptual flop of beef crudo ($15) more puzzling: It’s unattractively spread thin across the plate, and its mild flavor and contrasting accents of confit egg yolk and gribiche are overwhelmed by the oil of housemade potato chips. Vegetables fare much better, shining in plates like the stunning fava crudo ($12), which bursts with the springtime flavors and verdant colors of fresh favas, English peas, fennel fronds, walnuts and thin shavings of smoked provolone.
Standout smaller plates include a terrific Peruvian-inflected scallop ceviche ($12) with green apricot, avocado and acidic verjus; chewy pan-fried pierogi filled with rich beef cheek and apple ($10) and dolloped with cultured cream, fine herbs and togarashi; and the carrot creste de gallo ($18) featuring a deep-flavored, spicy chicken sugo and more excellent provolone. Only charred baby octopus ($18) with smoked potatoes disappoints, its adolescent-sized tentacles cooked to an unpleasant toughness.
Entrees boast more consistency. Roasted lamb ribs ($26) with warm potato salad feature the brilliant accent of a cumin-heavy finishing sauce. Striped bass ($28) with white beans and giardiniera is perfectly cooked if a bit pedestrian in its boned presentation. Hanger steak ($31) is surprisingly tender and complemented by a bright romesco and subtle ramp crema, but its best idea is a sprinkling of fierce Southeast Asian-style fried garlic, a trick more steakhouses should steal. Suckling pig ($29) might be the knockout, centered on crisp-edged, fatty slices of rolled belly roast, a tender pressé of shredded pork shoulder, fiddleheads, leeks, Muscat grapes, pretty leaves of nasturtium and lilac spinach, and johnnycakes tinted green with pea juice. It’s a tour de force de porc.
Pastry chef Meghan Thompson contributes a short list of winsome, delectable desserts, such as ice cream flavored with candy cap mushrooms ($10), topped with chewy steel-cut oats and given a tart exclamation point with chervil and apple vinaigrette, and a roasted-banana sundae ($12) that evokes a droll gourmand’s rendition of a Carvel novelty treat with miso ice cream, of-the-moment Tcho chocolate, fluffy marshmallows and an edible cone topper.
Bar manager Sean Frederick offers an extraordinary craft cocktail program, evidenced by clever originals like the Kingston Cup ($12) of Pimm’s cordial, Jamaican rum, ginger, lime and Sichuan peppercorn—like a Tiki cocktail that stumbled into a Wimbledon party. The by-the-glass wine list has two sparklers, five whites, one very charcuterie-friendly sherry and five reds ($10-$16). The bottle list of eight sparklers ($32-$230), 33 whites ($32-$140) and 30 reds ($37-$183) includes a welcome number of affordable bottles, like a 2012 Landron Muscadet “Les Houx” ($32), a canonical oyster pairing.
Service is mostly on-point but occasionally fudges a guess at ingredients, an unexpected lapse in a place proud of its sourcing. Bright lighting and plain furnishings contribute to a lively, informal feel. In essence, Jennings has taken the farmhouse traditions that won him fame and wrapped them in sleek, urban brasserie trappings. The versatile result—with its lunch/dinner/late-night service, excellent drinks and bustling vibe—can’t help but attract financiers by day and residents of new nearby luxury high-rises by night. I suspect what will keep chefs and food nerds coming back is Jennings’ confident, loving way with the raw and the cured, where the soul of his cooking clearly lies.
– New England charcuterie
– House terrine board
– Lamb crudo
– Fava crudo
– Carrot creste de gallo
– Hanger steak
– Suckling pig
Hours: Mon.-Thu., 11:30 am-11 pm, Fri., 11:30 am-midnight, Sat., 5:30 pm-midnight, bar till 1 am
Parking: Metered street spaces, valet during dinner
Liquor: Full bar
Townsman 120 Kingston St., Boston (617-993-0750) townsmanboston.com