Not all that long ago, self-proclaimed food cognoscenti were declaring—inaccurately—the death of French food. And if you listened carefully, there was an edge of glee to their proclamations: Fusion had replaced the classics of haute cuisine, and good riddance to all that technical rigor; never-ending processions of small plates eventually, for a time, knocked the classic starter-main-dessert routine from its place of primacy; food pundits searched far and wide for the next great trend; and the chattering class had all but turned its back on the supposedly fusty old traditions of great French cooking.
But you always, as countless country songs go, come back to the one you love. And here in Philadelphia, we’ve never really lost our love of dishes that, to some extent, are rooted in, or informed by, the great Gallic tradition. Kevin Sbraga, for all his global influences, is currently accompanying spring lamb with sauce bordelaise. Daniel Stern includes a blanquette with his “variations of pork.” Pierre Calmels seems to carry around an unabridged edition of Larousse Gastronomique in his head, able to translate a French classic into magic in the dining room with ease.
Add Townsend Wentz to this list, who, at his eponymous restaurant on East Passyunk, is cooking up a Gallic storm right now. I asked him what he calls his style of food there during a follow-up phone interview, and he said, simply, “We just call it French.”
Of course, Wentz has always been a chef of deep intelligence and creativity, which means that twists and turns along the way, deviations from orthodoxy, may be expected. Or not: It depends on the dish. Pan roasted sweetbreads, for example, sandwiched a rich slab of grilled veal tongue, all of it plated on an umber-toned veal jus, perfumed subtly with preserved lemons, that all shimmered against the plate. But it was the so-called Spanish gribiche that grabbed my attention most: Wentz had electrified the classic eggy sauce with boquerones, lending each bite a bright, pickly jolt.
Black bass with cockles embodied the season perfectly: Each delicate bite of fish, dragged through the zucchini-basil purée, was like a transmogrification of the farmers market onto the plate. Marinated hamachi evidenced a more modern take on French cooking, which branches out to encompass cuisines it’s traditionally not necessarily associated with in the popular imagination—in this case, Japanese. It arrived like a particularly beautiful print on the plate, a rectangular fractal pattern speckled with sesame, cucumber, cilantro, apple and furikake, a rice seasoning that in this iteration is composed of nori, wasabi, toasted sesame, dried sweet potato, citrus zest and more.
Wild striped bass, on the other hand, was more classically Euro-influenced, and while the tang of the basquaise peppers and slick of oloroso-sherry sauce owe a serious debt to Iberia, the potato fondant bridged Spain and France with ease. Roasted Giannone chicken, air-chilled and concentrated, featured exceptional leg galantine stuffed with chicken mousse and wrapped in speck, and a roasted-chicken-and-madeira jus with bluefoot mushrooms and popping with peas. It’s a chicken to think about long after you leave.
A phenomenal lamb special—earthy, tender slices of loin, and braised neck and a bit of shoulder with caramelized pearl onions, plums, cherries, grapes, and celery and zucchini batonnets—could have benefitted from some more acidic component, the better to cut it with and frame all those other ambrosial notes. I loved it anyway. And for all those great sauces, I wish they’d serve thicker slices of bread, the better to sop up all that brilliantly-crafted decadence spreading on the plates.
Not that I left any sauce with the skate, a perfectly seared wing luxuriating in an uni emulsion with a fricassee of Hunter’s Farm corn and generous hunks of large-diced bacon. And even if I did have some of that unexpectedly light-yet-decadent emulsion left, I’d have simply tipped the plate back and drunk it straight, perhaps asking for a shot glass to make it easier. And the unabashedly chocolatey Valrhona soufflé—“I mean, we have jammed as much chocolate in there as we can,” Wentz told me—with its side of Pernod Chantilly, is easily one of the better desserts I’ve tasted this summer.
All of this is paired with a very well-conceived beverage program that notably offers some of the more interesting, rewarding glass pours around, including an excellent Zweigelt rosé on tap, and cocktails that, even if you don’t finish them before you begin eating, are layered enough to work well with your food. After my Cynar- and Chartreuse-based “One Sunday Evening,” I ordered the very pleasant Jacquere from France’s Savoie. It cut the rich sauces, went toe-to-toe with the brighter green notes of others, and sipped deathknelleliciously on its own.
Townsend is a deeply successful refutation to the often-threatened deathknell of ambitious French dining. And further proof of Philadelphia’s ever increasing respect for this remarkable culinary tradition.
1623 E. Passyunk Ave. 267.639.3203. townsendrestaurant.com
Hours: Sun., Mon., Wed., Thurs., 5-10pm, bar open until 2am; Fri.-Sat., 5-11pm, bar open until 2am.
Price range: $10-$27.
Atmosphere: Elegant and sophisticated yet not pretentious.
Service: Deeply knowledgeable.