Sit down at the bar at Townsman, the new brasserie at the crossroads of Chinatown and the Financial District, and bar manager Sean Frederick is going to want to know what, if anything, you're having to eat. “This is definitely a restaurant-driven bar program,” he says of the concept from James Beard nominee Matt Jennings, recently of Farmstead in Providence, “so it's important for me to be suggesting beverages that fit the context of their meal and their experience and aren't too jarring.” Serving cocktails with food is similar to the way you choose wine with a meal, he says. “It's important with any beverage not to clobber people over the head with too much alcohol or too much flavor so it won't detract from what's coming out of the kitchen.” What's coming out of the kitchen are hearty seafood and stews, charcuterie and smaller bites like beef cheek and apple pierogies, and charred baby octopus.
In designing a cocktail list, Frederick said it was important to drill things down to their basics. “A lot of thought and technique goes into the drinks, but we want the offerings to read as very clean and accessible. We wanted to give people flavors and ingredients that they can grasp instead of a laundry list of ingredients that kind of clouds the picture."
That effect appears on the menu in the case of the brightly vegetal but savory Green Girder, which is explained simply as gin, celery juice, lime, smoke and salt. But there's a lot more at play. The juice alone is a mix of celery, sugar, Kummel, a caraway-flavored liqueur and celery shrub. The smoke comes in the form of mezcal, while the salt is a mix of three or four different types. It's a means of streamlining things both for the bartenders who have to serve them, but also the guests who might be put off by too much information at once.
“We're doing some sleight of hand here,” he says. “The drinks are no less in depth than anywhere else in town, but we want to make them as accessible as possible. We're not the first place doing craft cocktails in a ten block radius, but we do feel like we are on our block.”
Speaking of which, it is somewhat surprising to see a restaurant and bar of this caliber on the quiet end of Kingston St.
“No great bar can be successful without fitting the context of the neighborhood,” Frederick says. “We have an interesting position here. The reason why Matt was obsessed with coming to this location – we're seeing a revival Downtown – but this block and street corner is the apex of at least three wildly different neighborhoods. The Financial District is out one window, you turn the other direction and there's Chinatown, and you're staring out at the Greenway out of the other window. Across the street you've got the Leather District.”
Some of the drinks pay homage to those areas. The Green Girder is a wink to the past, current and future of the Greenway, referencing the old girders that used to make up the artery, with a little smoke to conjure the gritty traffic, but couched in the flavorful, verdant context of the lush new walkway and park.
Elsewhere the Kingston Cup harkens to Chinatown's tiki past, with a Pimm's base. “It has the sort of ethereal, can't put my finger on it, strange fruit thing going on, which you see on any corner market in Chinatown, and Jamaican rum, which is a hemisphere away from China, but it's got that olfactory funk, punch in the nose that you get from a lot of that cuisine."
The Orchard Collins takes vodka as a base, with Becherovka, granny smith apple juice, simple syrup, lemon and 2 dashes of absinthe, affecting a sort of tarragon and apple flavor combination hat works brilliantly.
“I'm not trying to be too pointy headed, I wanted to create a list that, sure, my friends and contemporaries can enjoy, but I don't want to create a cocktail menu that's for the 5 percent of cocktail geeks that might come through the door.”
“We're daring people to come drink a craft cocktail for the first time.”
If you go
120 Kingston St., Boston