September 19, 2010

Taste & Tell: Gustatory sparks shower from Burning Tree


OTTER CREEK - Burning Tree stands like a beacon on Mount Desert Island, attracting lovers of fresh seafood, local produce, fine wine and great cooking.

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Burning Tree in Otter Creek on Mount Desert Island has been open on a seasonal basis since 1987.

Matt McInnis photo courtesy of Burning Tree

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BURNING TREE, 71 Otter Creek Drive, Route 3, Otter Creek. 288-9331

RATING: ****½

HOURS: Open for dinner

5 to 10 p.m. Wednesday to Sunday; closing for the season Oct. 2

CREDIT CARDS: Visa, Mastercard and Discover

PRICE RANGE: $21.50 to $29

VEGETARIAN DISHES: Yes, a specialty

GLUTEN-FREE: Many options available and easily accommodated

KIDS: No children's menu but pasta, plain chicken breast and more are available


BAR: Full


BOTTOM LINE: The excellent cooking at Burning Tree involves fresh seafood, fine fresh produce and imagination, complemented by appealing cocktails and good wine.

Rating based on a five-star scale. It is the policy of the Maine Sunday Telegram to visit an establishment twice if the first dining experience was unsatisfactory.

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."

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