A glowing review usually portends an influx of customers, but when the lockdown left Joe Fox and Nick Gilkinson facing the possibly of none, the pair switched to delivery. Andy Lynes finds out more
Townsend is assured a place in history, but probably not in the way that chef Joe Fox and general manager Nick Gilkinson would have liked. It is the only restaurant to have a review by Fay Maschler published on the day it closed its doors. To make matters worse, Townsend had launched just six weeks earlier.
On the positive side, Maschler wrote glowingly about the "stylish" dining room that's set within the Whitechapel Gallery and the "fairly priced" modern seasonal British cuisine. In a final saving grace, the review mentioned the launch of the restaurant's delivery service.
"We closed on a Tuesday and had this up and running on Thursday. In hindsight, we should have taken our time a bit," admits Gilkinson. "I maybe also would have liked to have been a little more established before we made the switch, but we've been really well supported by our suppliers. We agreed with the gallery on the day we closed that we wouldn't pay rent until we reopen. They've basically said ‘we'll do anything to help, apart from give you money'."
Townsend's team has shrunk from eight down to just Gilkinson (ex-Anglo and Garden Café in Lambeth at the Garden Museum) –who packs up the food for deliveries, facilitated by an online platform and fulfilment service provided by Shoreditch-based Slerp – and former Petersham Nurseries head chef Fox, who is running the kitchen single-handedly.
Understandably, the menu of partially prepared ‘recipe boxes' for customers to complete is short, with a choice of two starters, a main course, one side and two desserts. Customers can choose from an additional two main courses if they order a set menu for two that includes a starter, main course, dessert and bottle of wine (£40) and regularly changing specials, such as fish pie for two (£18).
"It's not plating elegant dishes up any more – we have to make it more accessible and easy for people to do at home. We're getting it all delivered on the back of motorbikes, so packaging has been an issue and the dishes have to travel well," says Fox.
One of the dishes that has made the transition from restaurant to takeaway is potato dumplings, potted brown shrimp and spinach (£7), which has proved a bestseller in both contexts.
"It has quite classic British flavours. The dumplings are basically gnocchi," Fox explains. Mayan Gold potatoes from Carroll's Heritage Potatoes in Northumberland are cooked and riced before being added to a mix of egg yolks, Berkswell cheese and Shipton Mill flour. A spiced butter is made with nutmeg, bay leaf and mace, while anchovy essence is made from salted anchovies, white wine vinegar and lemon juice blitzed together. The melted butter is whisked over an ice bath while it's cooling to ensure the spices are carried through the mix instead of falling to the bottom. Customers then simply heat the dumplings, create an emulsion with the butter and some water, and add the spinach and shrimps.
Another popular item is the Sunday roast for two (£20). Fox supplies a raw 1.2kg free-range chicken from HG Walter, potatoes, carrots and seasonal greens, along with sage and onion stuffing, gravy and a pot of infused milk and breadcrumbs to make bread sauce. At Easter, Fox sold 30 portions of lamb shoulder braised overnight and served with roast potatoes, mint sauce, caramelised onions, heritage carrots and purple sprouting broccoli and gravy (£30 for two people or £55 for four people).
Fox has already changed the menu several times since launch and plans to make monthly changes depending on what's available from his two main suppliers, Natoora and HG Walter. In addition to the recipe boxes, Townsend is also delivering produce, including an essentials box of eggs, milk, butter, flour, pasta and tinned tomatoes (£14), which is a service Gilkinson is keen to expand. "We're going to keep adding, with some Neal's Yard cheese going on and more wines and British ciders and beers. We will look to continue long-term once the restaurant's reopened and do it nationally. That's the focus for the next few weeks, to work out those logistics and make it available to anybody."
Fox says that the delivery service won't necessarily be a money spinner, but that it will keep the business afloat and also help fulfil a more human need. "Chefs are always busy and now they're sitting at home with too much time on their hands. They're eager to get back to do something even if it's not that profitable. They want to supply nice food to people."
Townsend, Whitechapel Gallery, 77-82 Whitechapel High Street, London E1 7QX
From the menu
- Steamed asparagus, soft-boiled egg, capers and parsley mayonnaise £7
- Poached whole poussin with saffron potatoes and spring broth £12
- Pork belly, hazelnut and cider stuffing, roast potatoes with duck fat, seasonal vegetables, apple sauce and gravy £30 (for two)
- Treacle and ginger cake with custard £4
- Poached Yorkshire rhubarb, rosemary shortbread and clotted cream £4
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