I have been waiting for Townsman to open in Boston ever since hearing the sad news that Chef Matthew Jennings was closing up his incredible restaurant, Farmstead, in Providence, RI. Two friends invited my wife and I to join them for dinner when they secured a rare weekend reservation. We all couldn’t wait to see if Chef Jennings carried the magic he created in Providence back to Boston.
Before I begin this review, I want to make a few disclaimers. First, I am a big fan of Chef Jennings and I think he is extremely talented. Second, I fully understand that a new restaurant should never really get compared to an older or previous restaurant when the two are completely different. Nonetheless, I found it unavoidable to discuss some of my expectations for Townsman in light of my experiences with Farmstead and what I know about Chef Jenning’s abilities in the kitchen.
120 Kingston Street
Boston, MA 02111
Service and Atmosphere
Those of you that are familiar with Chef Matt Jennings’ former restaurant, Farmstead, in Providence, RI won’t find the same rustic coziness at Townsman. Instead, Chef Jennings’ new restaurant is bright and modern in style from the stylish bar waiting area to the open kitchen. The somewhat out of place bright red, wooden chairs in the dining area seem like an ironically hipster reference to the Chef’s previous restaurant. The restaurant, in general, is easy on the eyes and creates a fun atmosphere, but the exposed hard surfaces make it really noisy as the sound bounces around.
The service at Townsman is unfortunately a bit of a disaster. Our server (to put it nicely) seemed somewhat “unstable.” She was very nice as she yammered about totally random things and answered questions in an extremely verbose way that attempted to sell us on the menu items as well as educate. She was also completely flummoxed as she brought flat sparkling water when we asked for tap, or when she disappeared for periods of time without explanation, or when she consistently mislabeled the seat numbers on our orders so that secondary servers constantly mixed up where to place the food.
In addition to the more than confused service, the food took forever to come out of the kitchen. It took us 3 hours from the moment we sat down to finally pay our bill and leave. We weren’t even trying to have that kind of leisurely meal. The food just wasn’t making it out of the kitchen at a reasonable pace.
The food at Townsman is creative to say the least. Nonetheless, there were plenty of hits and misses on the menu.
Cocktails – Two of us tried some of Townsman’s cocktails before dinner. I tried an apple and citrus cocktail made with vodka that was strong, but not overpowering. The flavors were good even if the drink itself was pretty expensive. Since it was the weekend of the Kentucky Derby, my friend opted for a Mint Julep, which was also very strong, but made well.
Brown Bread in a Can – Townsman’s version of a basket of bread at the table is a house made New England Brown Bread in a Can. Anyone that’s ever had brown bread in a can knows that it’s a unique creation unto itself. Nonetheless, those of you that haven’t tried it should know that it tastes reminiscent of a sweet bran muffin, but so much better with a dense moist texture. Along with a couple of slices of the brown bread, Townsman serves an Asian-inspired butter placed on the unopened end of the can. The bread itself is incredible with just the right texture and sweetness while the toasted sesame and dried seaweed infused butter completely changed up the flavor adding some umami notes. This was a fantastic start to our meal and (perhaps unfortunately) my favorite item from the meal.
Charcuterie Plate – This starter is similar to what was presented at Farmstead in that you get two kinds of cured meats along with a myriad of complimentary items. We opted to try Townsman’s House-Made Salami and the Bresaola. The plate came out with a sweet mustard in the middle, some traditional style pickles, cold fried pickles, dressed broad beans, and a few biscuits. The bresaola (air dried salted beef) was reminiscent of prosciutto while the Townsman salami was also well made, but had flecks of lemon zest in it that I found interesting, but a bit distracting rather than complimentary. The side condiments were all really excellent except for the fried pickles, which were cold instead of hot indicating that they were fried long before serving. The biscuits were deliciously flaky and added a filling depth the to plate.
Cheese Plates – This is where the meal started to get a little silly and took a turn for the worse. We foolishly ordered two different kinds of cheeses to accompany our charcuterie board. The reason that this was foolish is because unlike the luxurious cheese boards served when Farmstead was open, these cheese plates came with just a microscopic sliver of cheese with a single accompaniment. Even worse, the little slivers of cheese were $7 each. The cheeses tasted good and the accompaniments were expertly paired as expected, but this was just a colossal rip off. I would steer clear of the cheeses at Townsman and warn you not to expect the same level of presentation as Farmstead.
Bang’s Island Mussels – Mussels are almost always good. It’s really hard to mess them up (minus the occasional fast food Asian Buffet disaster), so the only real comparison between mussel dishes at restaurants is whether they really blew your mind with an accompanying sauce or steaming liquid. The mussels at Townsman were steamed perfectly and the Thai sausage with red curry sauce was decent. We weren’t especially impressed with the Thai style curry liquid, but it was good.
Hamachi Crudo – This dish of raw yellow fin fish served with rhubarb, beets, and garlic was another disappointment. There wasn’t anything especially wrong with the dish because it was plated nicely, but it just had no flavor. The fish and even the toppings were really bland. This is perhaps our mistake for ordering a Japanese style sashimi preparation at a very non-Japanese restaurant. Once again, this was fairly expensive considering the lack of flavor.
Suckling Pig – I really wanted to love this dish. I even tried rationalizing it to myself by trying to appreciate its creativity, but at the end of the day I just didn’t find this dish very successful. The entree came out with two preparations of suckling pig. The first resembled a terrine, but rather than being a loaf, it was just a rectangular mold of pressed pulled pork with lemon zest. The meat was really good, tender, and flavored well, but I could have easily done without the lemon zest or the molded shape. The lemon zest just didn’t work for me and it kept interrupting the flavor profile rather than work with it and the pressed molding of the meat removed some of the tenderness. The other preparation was some kind of rolled and sliced piece of meat that was very fatty. I love fat as much as the next guy, but this wasn’t very appetizing. The meat within the roll was excellent, but the fat around the meat wasn’t soft or even crispy. It was very firm and chewy, which just did not provide a good texture at all. The fiddleheads and greens that accompanied the dish were fine on their own, but they didn’t really seem to work with the dish as a whole.
Hanger Steak – This was probably the best entree that we tried. The hanger steak was cooked perfectly to a delicious medium rare even though the server never asked my wife how she wanted it cooked. Personally, I think it’s a red flag whenever a steak comes out already sliced because this cools the meat very quickly and sometimes can leave the meat very dry. Nonetheless, the chefs did a good job with this one. Again, the price was more expensive than a piece of hanger steak should be if you consider that a 16 – 22oz. USDA prime ribeye from a premier steakhouse runs between $44 and $50.
Chocolate, Barley Ice Cream, and Celery Juice – In order to satisfy our adventurous streak, we tried this totally bizarre dessert creation. The dessert consisted of barley ice cream, some chocolate brownie-like pieces, crispy celeriac, and sweetened celery juice. Yes, you read that correctly. Celery juice. The expectations were really low for this dessert, but it delivered on experience if not flavor. Everything was pretty good separately and the dessert as a whole even worked with the celery, but this pairing was more like a reluctant team-up than a match made in heaven. We all agreed that the dessert would have been better without the sweetened celery juice, but we applauded the attempt by the chef to push the boundaries.
Lemon Custard – The other dessert that our friends ordered was a kind of lemon custard that was very rich and robust. The lemon flavor really shined. I’m not especially fond of lemon desserts, but I could appreciate the skill in making it. My friends enjoyed it and thought that it was a solid dessert.
I’m a big fan of Chef Matthew Jennings and I am generally awed by his skill-set, but I was underwhelmed by Townsman. If you’ve eaten at Farmstead (his now closed restaurant in Providence, RI) and you’re hoping for something similar, you won’t find it at Townsman. The creativity that comes from Chef Jennings is still there, but that is where the similarity ends. Townsman, unfortunately, hasn’t really found its stride yet. Considering that the service is a mess and the creatively prepared food doesn’t really deliver where it counts, I can’t justify the expense of a meal there. There are much better restaurants that will charge the same or less for a better experience. While Townsman is still finding its voice, I wouldn’t recommend eating at this restaurant just yet. I may return one day, but not anytime soon. I will, however, continue rooting for Chef Jennings to get past the hurdles of opening a new restaurant and to re-discover why people loved his style of food in the first place.