It is confusing for everyone — myself included — that when people ask me where to eat in Boston these days, the restaurant I keep sending them to is in Newton. People come here for the schools, not the crispy pork ribs with honey za’atar glaze and labneh.
Come to Buttonwood for the crispy pork ribs with honey za’atar glaze and labneh. These have bite and bark, the exteriors satisfying to sink the teeth into, the meat the perfect compromise between tenderness and chew. They are sweet-sour, scattered with torn mint and cilantro, and taste as much like Southeast Asia as the Mediterranean.
Chef-owner Dave Punch is disproportionately responsible for the amount of times I have sent anyone to Newton for dinner. In 2013, he opened Sycamore with business partner Shane Smyth, serving well-made cocktails and boards laden with duck for two from chef Lydia Reichert (formerly of Craigie on Main). They followed it in 2016 with Little Big Diner, which is best known for ramen but also has one of the most delicious green papaya salads around. Then, in January, they opened this third place, Buttonwood. They saw the need for good restaurants here, and the opportunity that presented, and they went about not just filling it but owning it. Their places are hospitable, the food delicious. It’s hard to say which I’m most fond of, because I like them all very much, but Buttonwood feels the most neighborhood joint-y and has a lot of heart. (I’ve also long been a fan of Jamaica Plain restaurant Ten Tables; when Punch was in the kitchen was one of its finest hours.) Newton has other worthy restaurants, of course — Lumiere comes immediately to mind. But Punch just has a knack for getting things right. (Now why can’t everyone?)
Show up at Buttonwood and squeeze into the bar, where your drink is likely to be made by alumni of Eastern Standard; chef Francisco Millan comes from sister restaurant Row 34. If they can make a perfect Manhattan on game day, when the Fenway restaurant becomes an unofficial clubhouse for fans, they can darn sure make one here. And on a busy night, the bar at Buttonwood can get almost as crowded, filled with neighborhood comers and industry friends.
But Buttonwood can also make a perfect kids’ meal. The offerings are fairly standard pasta-with-cheesy-sauce kinds of things. But the food is served on a nice china plate — one with compartments, so things don’t touch one another, because touching is yucky. And the meal includes a side, plus carrot sticks and fruit cut into appealing slices. It winds up looking like something you might serve your kids at home, except you don’t have to make it, or feel bad that your desire to go out comes at the expense of the future generation’s vegetable intake.
And for the adults: a menu that is coherent, appealing, achievably ambitious. The envelope is pushed the right amount, in the right direction, so that it doesn’t tear and the customers to whom it’s addressed open it eagerly.
On a Sunday night, half the people in the place seem to be eating the cheeseburger, which one person at my table declares among the best he’s ever had. It’s a balancing act: a sesame-seeded bun with a certain amount of integrity, but also enough squish; a thick, juicy patty, neither too dense nor too loose, bright pink in the middle and with great beefy flavor; cheddar and bacon, but not so much that they overwhelm the taste of the meat. Also the fries are good, crisp, hot, and salty. This burger — in combination with a rye Old Fashioned on draft and craft beer from mostly local brewers — is enough to qualify Buttonwood for regular bar hangout status.
Then, also, you could happily come here and eat nothing but vegetables. There’s a lush spread of red lentils warmed with Ethiopian berbere spices, served with grilled baguette. Spring arrives in the form of snap peas and radicchio, buried in a blizzard of shaved ricotta salata and lemon zest. It’s so simple and fresh. In another salad, cauliflower, pine nuts, and pomegranate seeds tangle together with honey and sumac. Order this trio and some nicely priced Spanish wine by the glass, and let the tightly knit day unravel into relaxed evening.
I like the “pizza shop Greek salad,” too — crisp lettuce, cucumbers, and olives, lightly dressed, topped with a slab of feta. And bright green-garlic campanelle, the pasta’s verdant frills peeking out from underneath clams in their shells, tossed with toasted breadcrumbs and chile flakes.
There’s a lot of house-made sausage in the world, but it is a real specialty of Punch’s — his chorizo, on Buttonwood’s opening menu, blew my mind with its snap and flavor. Now there’s garlic sausage (still good if not chorizo-level good) with chewy spaetzle, fiddleheads, and oyster mushrooms. A roast half-chicken comes with bulgur, apricots, raisins, and harissa. It’s everyday food dressed for an occasion. (Shout-out to the person in the kitchen who’s doing such a nice job of cutting the chives that get sprinkled everywhere.)
And if it happens to actually be an occasion, there are always a few dishes here that feel fancy: seared sea scallops from New Bedford with artichokes and grape and almond salsa verde, a monster grilled pork chop with muscat grape compote.
The grilled section of the menu is the only place I run into a real dud — an expensive piece of swordfish slathered in chile butter, with a little salad of greens and some grilled lemon for squeezing. I love this dish deeply in concept, and I’m stealing that chile butter idea for grilled-fish season. But the swordfish itself is mush. The staff handles the situation adeptly, making us a new one (slightly better) and taking it off the bill.
Dessert is perfectly pleasant: lemon poppy-seed cake with rhubarb and whipped crème fraîche, dark chocolate cake with peanut brittle and Toscanini’s excellent B3 ice cream (the star of the dish). But I think the best choice may be a dessert drink called the Revolver, made with espresso liqueur, cold brew, and mole bitters. I’ll never snicker at an espresso martini again.
It is Buttonwood’s ability to truly serve the neighborhood — to get it where it lives — that makes the restaurant so successful. Suburban diners aren’t bumpkins. They’re basically city diners with better backyards. And, often, with kids. Punch is a parent now. So am I. Looking around this room, I recognize so many people working here. There’s Matt O’Keefe, who was the general manager at Redd’s in Rozzie, my family’s regular brunch haunt. There’s Hugh Fiore, who made me cocktails at one of my first favorite bars. Punch roams the room, schmoozing and delivering dishes. It’s kind of moving. We all grew up in this industry together, wearing our different hats.
One night I met a friend here for dinner, and we got to talking with the two women at the next table, who were eating and drinking and laughing up a storm. They had a few decades on us. They were a good time. When they left, I said, “I think I just saw our future.” My friend said, “I hope so.” Then the Bruins scored, and it was on to Round 2, and Punch and O’Keefe tried to get us to do tequila shots with them. The beauty of growing up is this: Everything changes so much, and yet nothing ever changes at all.
51 Lincoln St., Newton Highlands, 617-928-5771, www.buttonwoodnewton.com. All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.
Prices Appetizers $6-$15. Entrees $16-$35. Dessert $10-$12.
Hours Sun 5-9 p.m., Mon-Wed 5-10 p.m., Thu-Sat 5-10:30 p.m. (Bar Sun until 11 p.m., Mon-Sat until midnight.)
Noise level Conversation easy, even between strangers.
May we suggest Berbere-spiced red lentils, snap pea salad, cauliflower salad, crispy pork ribs, scallops, sausage, cheeseburger.
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