Restaurant Review: Birmingham's Townhouse Bistro
A EURO CHARM: The casual Townhouse Bistro in Birmingham has the look, feel, and taste of a French brasserie
photographs by joe vaughn
Birmingham, which has become the Octo-mom of new-restaurant birthing, has popped another one.
This latest spawn comes from the line of casual dining, a charming one named Townhouse Bistro that slides into place alongside its other Birmingham siblings: Tallulah Wine Bar & Bistro, Café Via, Toast, Forest Grill, Luxe, Zazios, Barrio, Commonwealth Café, and others.
The casual restaurants that have opened up in the last five years have been lighthearted, fun, and energetic, with food that ranges from passable to good, and menus that usually have one or two unique — and sometimes exceptional — items.
Many tend to be more “social-aurants” than traditional “rest-aurants,” spots where looking marvelous is as important or more so than eating marvelous, and where meet-and-greet sometimes trumps serious culinary output.
In Europe, these kinds of places are the brasseries of France and the osterias of Italy. Here at home, and at Townhouse Bistro, the type of food, menu size, and drink offerings are similar. The Townhouse menu is, by design, short and casual, with five first-course offerings, four salads, nine main courses, and two desserts — depending on the day of the week and inspiration in the kitchen.
Interestingly, restaurant designer Ron Rea has given Townhouse an extraordinary amount of the feel and charm. It has the character of a Parisian brasserie, perhaps more so than any restaurant in the greater metro area. Much of that feeling has to do with the pedestrian nature and density of its downtown location.
LEFT: Sous-chef Chris Tietz chops celery, carrots, and onions in the kitchen. CENTER: Imported burrata cheese with heirloom tomatoes, basil, balsamic, and crostini. RIGHT: Executive chef James Gundy prepares Date with a Pig, an appetizer consisting of dates stuffed with Gorgonzola and wrapped in bacon.
“I wanted a place that reproduced many different things that I appreciated in restaurants,” owner Jeremy Sasson says. “So, basically there’s no single concept. I didn’t want there to be a definition of what we are. So, I have the suit-and-tie crowd alongside the T-shirt-and-denim people. There are no borders.”
On a recent fall evening, as the sun dropped and a brilliant, clear moon rose over the roofs across the street, the happy din of a restaurant in full swing of its evening crowd wafted onto the street. Diners sat in a cool evening breeze that drifted in through the massive, open ceiling-to-floor sliding glass door walls that constitute the entire front and side of the L-shaped corner of the multi-story complex that Townhouse occupies.
As with its European counterparts, about half of Townhouse’s 110 seats are outside on a wide sidewalk and tented-over by several mega-wide red umbrellas. Ultra-chic, glass-fluted outdoor gas-lamp heaters keep the terrace warm and comfortable. Servers are dressed in black with red canvas shoes and red suspenders.
A public pedestrian walkway divides the inside and outside, making it even more trés Euro.
LEFT: Birmingham's Townhouse Bistro Bar adds to its European ambience. RIGHT: The vibe is like a french brasserie.
Part of the charm at Townhouse is its warmth, energy, and fun little design touches. On the seat backs and the sides of banquettes and along the padded divider walls, Rea inserted outsized zippers sewn randomly into the gray-tan ultra-suede upholstery. Some of the zippers are half-open, amusingly showing a pinch of the underlying white material, as if underwear were caught. Others are unzipped; some are primly and properly closed.
Orange filament bulbs trace the L-shaped outside walls, casting a soft glow. A sizable dark-wood bar serves as the center point of the dining area, part of which has a series of high-topped tables. The only complaint we heard was that the regular aluminum chairs, which look great, are quite uncomfortable to sit in for a 90-minute dinner.
The kitchen is located, oddly enough, in the storefront next door, and red-shirted runners are used to rush the orders around the corner to the wait stations — an oddly energetic exercise that adds an even more Euro-feel to the place.
Chef Jay Gundy’s menu has several exceptional dishes. It aims to provide the best ingredients in a series of what owner Sasson like to call “comfort food.” The five first courses include a mini-steak tartare served with a raw quail egg in the middle of a perfectly round cylinder of beef with little oval mounds of chopped capers and onion on the side. The toasts for the preparation are served in a round metal container. The Townhouse chicken wings aren’t anything unusual but are kicked into high gear by superb fresh coleslaw made with jalapeño peppers.
But the winner in first courses on our visit was the Date With a Pig: an appetizer of dates stuffed with Gorgonzola cheese and wrapped in bacon with Marcona almond and balsamic-vinegar sauce.
The four salads include one made of beets, arugula, goat cheese, pistachio, and orange; a traditional Caesar salad; and a mix-your-own combination.
Fish 'n' chips includes jalapeño beer batter, vegetable chips, and tomato-purée coleslaw.
Among the main courses, the fish and chips was particularly notable for its crispy and slightly spicy thick crust made with beer batter and jalapeño peppers. The smoked chicken macaroni and cheese — made with Boursin and mozzarella — was another exceptional offering.
The signature dish is the Townhouse burger: 9 ounces of 28-day, dry-aged beef on a brioche bun with Cabot white cheddar and onions glazed with bourbon.
This is not fine dining, nor does it try to be. The top-end temples of dining — what one food writer described as the “Casa de la Maison Chateaux Manor Inn” — offer a more intricate and intense dining “experience.” Those top restaurants are all about food and ambience, which they create with starched white-linen tablecloths, sparkling crystal stemware, and dinner-jacketed servers with accents.
One is not in any way better than the other. Each has its place and purpose.
The success or failure of any restaurant, whether it’s white-linen or a diner, always rests on how good it is at what it does. Townhouse succeeds, and with a bill that will not melt your gold or platinum card.
180 Pierce St., Birmingham; 248-792-5241, townhousebistro.com. L & D daily.
Cook is Hour Detroit’s chief restaurant critic. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.