Restaurant Review: Townsend at the Whitechapel Gallery
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Country & Town House’s Amy Wakeham indulges in bacon scones and ginger and treacle pudding at Whitechapel Gallery’s new restaurant Townsend…
Once the preserve of latte-sipping retirees and school kids on a field trip, gallery cafes and restaurants have quietly given themselves a bit of a makeover in recent years, hiring big-name chefs and conjuring up dishes a tad more adventurous than lemon drizzle cake…
In London, must-visits include Tate Modern, where head chef Jon Atashroo magics up innovative plates inspired by the gallery’s exhibitions, and Rochelle at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, the highly regarded sister to the foodie favourite Rochelle Canteen, founded by Margot Henderson and Melanie Arnold.
The latest addition to this list is Townsend, which has just opened at the Whitechapel Gallery. It was started by Nick Gilkinson, a restaurateur who has form on the London food scene, previously managing Anglo and the Garden Café, the restaurant at the Garden Museum (another gallery restaurant well worth checking out). Helming the kitchen at Townsend is Joe Fox, none other than the ex-head chef of Petersham Nurseries. So, with this kind of talent behind the scenes, I came expecting big things.
And I wasn’t disappointed. I visited on a Sunday afternoon, when golden sunshine was pouring in through the restaurant’s large windows into its small, airy space. Glass pendant shades add a modern touch to the natural, wood-panelled interior, and mirrors on each side enhance the natural light. Just like at Anglo, the Garden Café and Petersham Nurseries, the atmosphere was as friendly and informal as you could wish, a remarkable feat considering the quality of the food.
The restaurant is named after its 19th-century architect, Charles Harrison Townsend, and Fox has mirrored his famous style of combining classical elements with fierce originality in the cooking. The result is a refreshingly short and simple menu stuffed with delicious modern twists on much-loved British dishes, like the bacon scones with goat curd and chives, a scrumptious savoury twist on the English classic. Other plates like the curried veal sweetbread with cauliflower, burnt onions, and sour yoghurt are inspired by the food culture of Whitechapel’s east London neighbourhood.
Having started with the bacon scones (naturally), we went on to try the plate of potato dumplings with tiny potted brown shrimp and delicate sea purslane. Drenched in a decadent, buttery sauce, this was comfort food at its best – left to my own devices I would have eaten a vat.
Luckily, I refrained, as the roast pork belly came next, a piece of meat raised in bucolic heaven in Oxfordshire’s Paddock Farm. It was served with a small mountain of perfectly done crackling, lashings of apple sauce, and roasted root vegetables topped with fried sage leaves. It was all unbelievably delicious, as well as unashamedly down-to-earth – the kind of cooking you wish you could execute at home, but never seem to quite pull off.
Accompanying all this were a selection of wines by the glass, recommended to us by restaurant manager Alex Miller. The well-priced cellar – bottles start at £24 – is personally chosen by Gilkinson, who focuses on old-world vineyards and a mix of natural and traditional methods when selecting his wines.
Trouser buttons popping, we rounded things off with the ginger and treacle pudding – already a firm favourite, according to Miller. His favourite trick is to ask diners to guess the secret ingredient in the ice cream, with the offer of another serving on the house up for grabs if you get it right. I won’t spoil the game for you, but it’s safe to say the answer was totally unexpected. And no, we did not guess right. Not that we could have managed another helping anyway.
Bright, breezy and friendly to a fault, Townsend is one of London’s most exciting new restaurants to launch this year – whether in a gallery or not. Go on a Sunday afternoon, like we did, and work up an appetite moseying around the excellent Radical Figures exhibition that’s on right now at the Whitechapel Gallery. Then while away the rest of the weekend at a window table, making your way through Fox’s superb menu. Because trust me, you will want to try everything.
77-82 Whitechapel High St, Shadwell, London E1 7QX. whitechapelgallery.org/townsend