OTTER CREEK – Burning Tree stands like a beacon on Mount Desert Island, attracting lovers of fresh seafood, local produce, fine wine and great cooking.
Surrounded by the restaurant’s own acre of gardens and supplied with more produce from local farms, the dinners at Burning Tree stand out for their fresh taste, lively flavors and an experienced creativity that never strays from what people love to eat.
Local produce has enhanced the cocktail list. I can recommend the purple basil mojito ($9.50), minty and strong, and the crabapple cosmo ($9.50) made with juice from the crab apples off a tree next to the restaurant.
A glass of Philippe Raimbault Apud Sariacum Sancerre ($9.75 a glass, $39 a bottle) was full-bodied and acidic, and is perfect with seafood. Another among the fine nine wines sold by the glass is the fruity and smooth Cabernet Sauvignon-Shiraz (and more) blend Bremerton Tamblyn 2008 ($8 a glass, $32 a bottle) from Langhorne Creek in south Australia. Be assured, there’s a good list by the bottle.
Seafood is the focus of the dinner menu, and chicken and a little prosciutto or chorizo are the extent of the meat served. Three vegetarian entrees are on the menu, including minted edamame wontons in miso broth. Taking vegetarian dishes seriously has always been important to the owners, chef Allison Martin and Elmer Beal, who teaches at the College of the Atlantic. They opened Burning Tree in 1987 and have run it as a seasonal restaurant ever since.
Goat-cheese-stuffed squash blossoms are dipped in batter and deep fried. They arrive looking like something from the fried dough stand at the fair. But biting into one is nothing like that, with its warm, tangy cheese and the tang of sweet tomato jam served alongside.
Buttery chicken liver pate is piped decoratively on sliced, toasted baguette with pickled grapes. The rich, savory flavor and sweet-sour fruit make a fine combination.
Martin planned the restaurant as a senior project when she was a student at College of the Atlantic. She said that strangely, no one was using local seafood back then.
“We have seven species of fish in the Gulf of Maine, and lots of shellfish what really makes us different is using a great variety of local fish and shellfish,” she said.
Swordfish, halibut, sand dabs or flounder, monkfish, salmon and grey sole are caught in local waters. Burning Tree used to buy them from local fishermen, but since many of those people have stopped fishing, she now gets seafood from the Portland Seafood Auction.
A special of grey sole ($29), rolled up and surrounded by braised radicchio, Maine shrimp and Dijon cream, was both sharp and rich, a sublime combination. The fish was delicate and pure in taste.
Cashew, Gruyere and brown rice terrine ($23.50), wrapped in a belt of thin-sliced zucchini and surrounded with purple potato chips, surprised with creaminess and lots of crunch, perhaps touched with coriander.
As I spoke to Martin on the phone after my visit, she said, “My daughter just walked in with a yard-long bean. It’s 2 feet long right now.” The bean, a variety called red noodle, will be on the menu soon, along with spaghetti squash.
And although I missed them, customers can look forward to razor clams, which will be harvested as soon as the tide is right, perhaps in a special of gray sole rolled around spinach and garlic in a clam broth with steamed razor clams.
“The foot part is really thick and long, but they’re terrific; they’re really briny and sweet,” Martin said. The older generation knows about harvesting the hen clams and razors, she added. “You always see the old-timers at some bizarre tides.”
Beal is from MDI, and some members of his family were lighthouse keepers. He’s been active in local fishing meetings and issues. Martin said there’d been some encouraging catches. For example, she said, monkfish used to be giant, and then they were small for a long time. But the restaurant has seen some really big tails or filets this year.
Around time for dessert, it somehow became apparent we were running late — and when I asked the server if there was a reservation for our table coming up, she said there was one for 8:30. We couldn’t be put off dessert and coffee, though we’d dallied, and one of us had indeed arrived a little late.
Martin apologized if we had felt at all hurried. “We try to plan that into several of the seatings so we have some wiggle room,” she said.
Perhaps her customers just like her food too much to dine in a reasonable amount of time.
And really, we couldn’t help but linger over the lemon curd and fresh blueberries in one tart (both desserts $8.50), which had a crisp yet tender sugar crust, and a second tart of raspberry semifreddo, a wedge of creamy pink veined with ice crystals that was sour and sweet with pure raspberry flavor.
The raspberry tart on an opaque blue glass plate was stunning, the entire meal had made us happy, and the cappuccino ($4) and decaf, both from Rooster Brothers in Ellsworth, deserved to be enjoyed, just like everything else at Burning Tree.
N.L. English is a Portland freelance writer and the author of “Chow Maine: The Best Restaurants, Cafes, Lobster Shacks and Markets on the Coast.” Visit English’s Web site, www.chowmaineguide.com.