Townsend's

Go out of the way for good food and a welcoming atmosphere
By ROBERT NADEAU  |  September 25, 2008
3.0 3.0 Stars

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SALAD DAYS: Grilled romaine hearts is a clever spin on the classic.

Townsend’s | 617.333.0306 | 81 Fairmount Avenue, Hyde Park | Open Tues–Sat, 5–10:30 pm, and Sun, 10:30 am–3 pm and 5–10:30 pm | DI, MC, VI | Full bar | No valet parking | Sidewalk-level access

To get to Townsend’s in Hyde Park — one of Boston’s lesser-known neighborhoods — you don’t have to go that far, but you do go through a time warp. The restaurant describes itself as being in Logan Square (don’t try this on a cab driver), but it’s actually south of Cleary Square, which is similar to what Davis Square was like 20 years ago, a world of mom-and-pop stores leavened with immigrants that now seems as remote as Sturbridge Village to most of Boston. Cleary Square’s newest enterprising immigrants are from Africa — in the pre-yuppie times of Davis Square, they might have been from Portugal or Italy.

This doesn’t seem like a very clever place to put a serious bistro-pub, but the owners did market research, got some help from Jeff Fournier of Newton’s 51 Lincoln, and on a recent Friday night filled every table by eight o’clock. Contrary to what one might expect of a place that flies the Irish flag, the food is quite delicious, there’s a fine, extensive beer list, and the customer base when we were there included Africans, African-Americans, and at least one lesbian couple.

How does Townsend manage to attract such a diverse crowd? Well, we could start with the bread basket, which features very tasty Italian bread with big holes, as well as a fresh, dense loaf. Slices of these go well with a flowery-peppery extra-virgin olive oil that doesn’t need the added chili and rosemary. A lot of people will go straight from there to the “PEI beer mussels” ($8), which are steamed in Smithwick’s red ale. They’re prepared carefully enough that all the alcohol is cooked off. The results aren’t too salty; in fact, there’s a rich, cheese-like flavor. You’ll want to keep spooning up the broth with mussel shells, pieces of bread, the two toasts provided, or your bare hands.

Grilled romaine hearts ($8) is a clever spin on deconstructed Caesar salad. They really do grill a whole lettuce, getting some char on the outside while most of it remains crisp. Caesar-like sauce is dribbled artistically alongside, and there are superior croutons made of the Italian bread with the big holes. The seafood trio ($11) puts some nice smoked bluefish pâté next to those toasts, with skewers of grilled shrimp and tempura-fried salmon bellies. I couldn’t believe the skill of this fry job, so we also had a side dish of tempura-fried asparagus ($4), and it was even better.

Although the menu offers some Irish specialties that are bound to be very good, including shepherd’s pie, we went exploring. Lamb kebabs ($22) are allegedly marinated in Guinness, but somehow emerge with a subtle Moroccan emphasis, punched up by a sauce of cucumber-yogurt raita and a Mediterranean-flavored couscous turned into a cold salad. Roasted chicken ($18) was crisp outside, juicy inside; it’s served with a side dish of champ (homemade mashed potatoes with chives), “Mom’s chicken gravy” — no one involved is named Townsend, so whose mom is unclear, but she knows gravy — and terrific braised Brussels sprouts. Planked salmon ($20) came out without the plank (but with the cedar-plank flavor) on black rice, with more of the tempura-fried asparagus.

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