Restaurant Review: Townsend

Townsend is proof that one lucky day can change the entire course of a life.


Photos by Jason Varney

We here at Philadelphia magazine decided last month to start debuting restaurant reviews early on Foobooz. We had reasons. And we discussed them here. Welcome to the new world.

Townsend Wentz was an analytical chemist shifting toward genomics research when he got a chance to cook at Philadelphia’s Four Seasons for a day. It was 1996, he’d just wrapped up a second bachelor’s degree in biology, and recombinant DNA was calling his name. But Jean-Marie Lacroix interrupted, and fate took care of the rest.Wentz, who’d cooked his way through college, had a great day in the French chef’s kitchen. It beat testing canola oil acids, and it was more social than laboratory bench work. When one of the restaurant’s line cooks quit that very day, Wentz’s lark in Lacroix’s kitchen, and later Lacroix at The Rittenhouse, turned into nearly 10 years.No wonder the Riverton, New Jersey native’s sauces are so good.

Philadelphians wise to Wentz’s transformation of McCrossen’s Tavern in Fairmount have known that for three years already. In May, he opened a place of his own—really, truly his own. From the salvaged cherrywood he planed to cap a rebuilt bar to the floors he refinished with his sous-chef and sommelier to the furniture they stained and reupholstered by hand, his fingerprints are all over the place. Before Wentz became a chemist, he built racing sailboats.

People say a jack-of-all-trades is a master of none, but probably not people who’ve tasted Wentz’s cooking. A restaurant can’t ask for a better time to make its first impression than the height of spring, and Townsend was capitalizing during my visits in May and June.

Here was a stinging nettle soup, its invigorating vegetable healthfulness seething with the smoky intrigue of charred razor clams and the tang of crème fraîche. There was a clutch of sautéed sweetbreads on a grilled veal tongue, accompanied by the bright pop of white asparagus and a pale green sauce gribiche galvanized by Spanish boquerones. You could hardly place an order without winning a trove of fiddlehead ferns. They came in the company of artichokes in a warm salad heavily dressed with an emulsion of lemon juice and bacon fat tempered by vegetable stock. They came with tender escargots and chanterelles in an alchemy of shallots, sherry vinegar, bacon and crème fraîche that tasted like ranch dressing after a trip to finishing school.

With its French technique, rich sauces and white tablecloths, Townsend feels a little bit like culinary counter-programming on a stretch of Passyunk Avenue increasingly defined by departures from traditional fine dining. Wentz doesn’t really go in for molecular gastronomy here, either. “I ran away from chemistry!” he laughs.

But there’s nothing stodgy about this warm place. Classic jazz veers toward Wilco and War on Drugs as the evening progresses. Behind that refinished bar, Keith Raimondi’s cocktails and Lauren Harris’s kegged wines attract a copacetic drinking crowd. Some come for the old-time comfort of a Pimm’s Cup zinged with real ginger, others for the Le Demon Rouge—in which tequila and Thai bitters energize Byrrh, a French aperitif back on American liquor shelves after a 50-year absence.

And Wentz has a knack for crafting dishes that while rich are rarely ponderous. The boldest sauce I encountered here, framing a seared filet of striped bass, was a chunky Basque-style peperonata that had no cream and not much butter, either. Vivid doses of smoked pimentón, anchovy and garlic—brightened with sherry vinegar and deepened with veal stock and oloroso sherry—stole the spotlight from the mild fish, but I wasn’t complaining.

On the other end of the spectrum, a high-quality hunk of Icelandic cod—seared to an exquisitely caramelized edge both times I had it—needed only the restrained accent of a sorrel-vermouth sauce that, along with a bounty of English peas, lent a springy shine to an almost fluffy accompaniment of brandade.

Just the same, it would be a shame to eat here and not like butter, cured pork or meat stocks. Scallops came with seaweed butter and a scallop roe emulsion—punctuated by the sweet acidity of preserved citrus segments. Rabbit pot-au-feu, forthrightly perfumed with thyme, featured the loin pounded with pancetta into a duxelle-stuffed roulade, plus a plump mound of liver mousse on a baguette toast point. Wentz sends out his beef tartare—a giant appetizer portion—with a bone marrow tartine.

Leave room for two desserts. Wentz’s naked fruit plate, stacked with melon cubes, pear slices, and strawberries surpassing the best ones I’d found yet a week into the season, needed no more adornment than the few (surprisingly welcome) Minette basil leaves it got. And the chocolate soufflé with Pernod chantilly proves that a dessert that comes with a 15-minute warning is worth the wait.

You could say the same of the 18 years it took for Townsend Wentz to find a place that was truly all his own.

3 stars out of 4 – Excellent

Entrée prices: $26
Average wine bottle markups: 2.4 x PA retail

Townsend [Foobooz]

This review by Trey Popp will be published in the August 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.

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  • Earl J

    Please open your place in Fairmount ASAP!

  • Agree, Tod is kicking ass. Reads (and tastes) like a 4-bell.

    “Average wine bottle markups: 2.4 x PA retail” Cool!

    • DrVampyre927

      Did the reviewer swallow or spit after “going down on Tod” after his review.

  • James Zeleniak

    Fully agree with both sentiments.

  • James Ray

    Ate here twice. Amazing food and drinks!

    • DrVampyre927

      It wasn’t “all that”

  • DrVampyre927

    The bar’s good, but the food “ain’t all that” Tod treats his staff like dirt, the same way he treated the wait staff at the Fountain Rest and Lacroix after Management left the scene. At McCrossens, he was a terrible communicator,screaming at the staff to get his point across.

    • NO NAME PLZ !#!#!#

      I work at Townsend and I LOVE it there. I have been in this industry for many years with many well known chefs. I have never had one( such as Tod ) that that says “Thank You” to his staff every night, so I have no idea where that is coming from. I can only truly say, he definitely respects only those with the same work ethic (as his own) – a STRONG ONE – with drive, enthusiasm and respect for the work place. Possible you didn’t meet one or ALL of those? Please stop being disrespectful over an obvious personal issue ( which appears to be your own). Time to move on, my friend. I will not Post or comment to you again; I just wanted people to know the information given by DrVampyre927, is just plain absurd, an he/ she should be embarrassed.. It’s just silly now. I hope you get better soon:)

      • DrVampyre927

        Hey no name,as a guy who has worked in the “business for over 25 yrs” started as server in Swann Lounge(now Exec GM Partner in Chicago) in restaurants and Hotel restaurants throughout Philly. I know “who is good and who is an A$$hole” I’m sure he says “thank you” very night to the staff,then after you leave, he really “talks” about his staff. I watched an incident at Townsend where he reduced 2 wait staff to tears in front of me and said (Hey … just like the Rittenhouse). I hate to say it but you sound like a female”who likes Tod, has already had Tod, involved with Tod or about to get involved with Tod”I”ve known Tod since his Fountain Restaurant days, he belongs in the A$$hole category.It’s just a statement of fact. I’m sorry to burst your bubble. Yours DrVampyre(In Chicago)

      • DrVampyre927

        Hey no name,You’re Welcome!!

  • Chris

    Clearly DrVampyre has differnt tastes or out look on things. Or possiable a disgruntle co-worker at one time.. I hear nothing but good things coming from this place. And I actually talked to the staff and everyone says its a very relaxed and chill place to work.. Sometimes you have to get loud and yell to workers that are not up to par every boss has to at some point. You want your hard work to shine and a poor staff can make or break your place.. I think this place is amazing, and so do a lot of other people.. But whatever everyone is entitled to their own opinion.

    The place is amazing with good atmosphery food is amazing, I’d give it a 9 outta 10

    • mustangsuzie

      Chris, I’ve known vamp since we were both Fountain Restaurant Am bussers then servers back in the late 80’s. You never yell at staff in front of customers-its not done that way!!

      • DrVampyre927

        Right on!! can you imagine Chef LaCroix yelling at one of his chefs.
        All he had to do was stand there,look at the chef and raise an eyebrow!

  • mustangsuzie

    So Foobooz, only positive comments about your latest “favorites” are allowed on here. Drvamp was right on with his comment-the bar was good, but the food was “ok” And his response to noname was spot on correct! You are obviously a “chef groupie” who knows him “very,very well”.