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.