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

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.

The beer list has maybe 100 brands by the bottle, and 26 or so on draught. Cambridge Brewing Company’s Great Pumpkin Ale ($5) showed very well. It’s clean and refreshing, with just a hint of pumpkin and an aftertaste almost like mint. A glass of 2006 Joseph Carr Cellars merlot ($9/glass; $35/bottle) was excellent food wine, with enough fruit and acidity to drink simply with cheese. Decaf coffee ($1.86) was well-made too.

My pick of the desserts would be the banana bread pudding ($6). This is the old-fashioned kind, with the custard and bread a little distinct, and bananas as a kind of layer with caramel sauce. There’s nothing wrong with panna cotta ($6), a plain, light vanilla pudding with raspberry sauce and a few fresh berries on top. Papaya sorbet ($3) was sweet and refreshing, but didn’t capture the elusive papaya flavor.

The thing about opening a bistro-pub in the provinces is that one has to be nice with the dollar signs. The mark-up on the wine might even be a bit below the traditional double-retail price point here, whereas many downtown places are now charging triple retail, and then some. Plus, with entrées around $20, you don’t have to check the stock ticker before you make a reservation.

Service was warm and helpful, though there were some miscommunications with the kitchen. It took a couple of tries to get the bluefish pâté to complete the seafood trio, and an offering of peach sorbet turned out to be peach ice cream. The atmosphere is calmer than at downtown restaurants, so you can hear yourself think, even with a background tape that gets to some real Chicago blues.

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  Topics: Restaurant Reviews , Hyde Park , Hyde Park , Food and Cooking ,  More more >
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