When chef/owner David Punch opened Sycamore in Newton Centre five years ago, it became an immediate sensation, bringing a big dose of culinary cleverness and cocktail sophistication to a sleepy suburban scene. Little Big Diner, his 2016 follow-up, added ramen, bao and other of-the-moment Asian delights in a modest, hip package just across the Green. His new restaurant Buttonwood, a mile away in Newton Highlands, further expands Punch’s reach. It’s another eclectic, relaxed American place with a witty beverage program in the mold of Sycamore, but leans less snout-to-tail, more Mediterranean. A few weeks in, it’s not hard to see why it’s packing in crowds.
Along with chef de cuisine Francisco Millan (ex-Row 34), Punch starts off with a series of spreads for topping excellent, oily grilled bread, like a fierce spicy whipped feta ($5), the less chili-forward but still complexly seasoned Berbere-spiced red lentils ($5), and the mild but still kicky roasted garlic and white bean ($4). Marinated octopus salad ($8) brings a gently briny accent and delicately tender texture. It’s easy to imagine making a light meal of a couple of these with a glass of wine and maybe a salad.
Such salads include matchsticks of pear with celery ($12) showered with good, salty pecorino and walnuts, though it’s overly acidic and overdressed with aged balsamic. Chopped beet salad ($13) with excellent Stilton, red grapes and hazelnuts is better: a vibrant, al dente gloss on an often rote, dull offering. Smoked fish fritters ($12) of flaked cod and smoked trout boast a nice greaseless fry job with plenty of crunch and a gentle smokiness, plus some spicy tartar sauce for dipping. Farro and parsnip soup ($9) with pancetta is made memorable by a superb golden chicken stock and a drizzle of intense pistou. A primo-sized plate of housemade gemelli with spicy tuna pomodoro ($14), given a little crunch with a sprinkle of bread crumbs, is absolutely sensational, the fish providing meaty heft and depth to a vivid tomato sauce.
Traditional entrees deliver exceptional value, as in the chorizo cazuela ($23), a meaty Spanish casserole with stewed chickpeas, swiss chard, prettily garnished hard-boiled egg and the kind of great, fresh sausages familiar to Sycamore fans. Moules frites ($21) offers a generous poundful of pristine mussels in a sharp, Alsatian-leaning bath of beer, mustard and caraway, plus really fine fries on the side. Compared to these, Portuguese fish stew ($27) is slightly underwhelming: the littlenecks gritty, the monkfish losing its lobsterish chew and sweetness to poaching, the broth underseasoned, though a bright smear of garlicky aioli on grilled bread adds some interest. But then there’s the roasted half-chicken ($22), a tribute in spirit and technique to Boston’s bygone Hamersley’s Bistro. It’s air-dried and long-marinated, roasted and broiled, served with pepperonata slices and kale over polenta. A worthy evocation of one of Boston’s most historic dishes, it’s astonishingly fragrant, juicy and crisp-skinned.
The menu continues with simply grilled proteins accented with sharp sauces. Colossal shrimp ($34) spears four mega-prawns on a skewer and plates them in a puddle of eye-watering chili butter. Flank steak ($18) is a thinly sliced, modest 10 ounces with a bright, fierce chimichurri. Lamb kofte skewer ($21) comes off as undercooked and needing salt, helped a bit by tangy tzatziki. Meanwhile, whole branzino ($30) absolutely nails its preparation. It’s perfectly, moistly cooked through, with a simple topping of herby salmoriglio and chopped escarole.
These naked plates need a side dish or two, and Buttonwood’s are mostly tremendous, like nicely charred broccoli with a vivid salsa rossa ($8); a hefty casserole of grilled escarole with white beans and Caesar aioli ($8); a slab of slightly sweet cornbread and honey-Tabasco butter sprinkled with pepper ($6); and most notably the root vegetable gratin ($8) of sweet potatoes, celery root and parsnip—a cream-dosed, heavenly reimagining of scalloped potatoes. Punch’s own lovely desserts include a slender wedge of dreamy chocolate cake ($10) with chopped peanut brittle and Toscanini’s B3 ice cream and an airy warm bread pudding ($10) with sweetly tangy khulfee ice cream.
Bar manager Hugh Fiore (ex-Eastern Standard) has crafted 10 sophisticated specialty cocktails ($11-$13) and a nicely nerdy beer list (eight on tap, $6-$10; seven packaged, $5-$11). But the value-priced wine program may steal the spotlight, between its 17 glasses ($10-$14) and 38 bottles ($35-$95, most under $60) drawing mainly from deep-cut regions of Spain, Portugal and the U.S. It’s a rare neighborhood-restaurant program that unearths little-seen Portuguese stunners like the 1990 Frei João (a steal at $65), which softened into subtle sublimity with a long aging. The room—44 dining seats, 14 bar seats, a few more at counters—is understatedly handsome, with its monochrome color palette, plain wooden tabletops, midcentury rec-room wood paneling and slate-blue upholstered banquettes, though noise can sail past lively toward painful at prime time. Service is exceptional by suburban standards with a waitstaff that’s uniformly knowledgeable, amiable and efficient.
After a few meals here, I’m wondering if it’s time to retire my surprise at finding Buttonwood’s downtown level of polish, joy and excellence in the suburbs. After all, Boston’s rents and licensing costs have been driving great independent talent outward for years now. That’s fantastic news for the folks who live in long-restaurant-benighted Newton, and plenty of reason for us jaded city dwellers to venture far out on the D train. ◆
Spicy whipped feta
Marinated octopus salad
Chopped beet salad
Farro and parsnip soup
Gemelli with spicy tuna pomodoro
Root vegetable gratin
Buttonwood, 51 Lincoln St., Newton (617-928-5771) buttonwoodnewton.com; Hours: Mon.-Wed., 5-10 pm (bar till midnight), Thu.-Sat., 5-10:30 pm (bar till midnight), Sun., 5-9 pm (bar till 11 pm); Reservations: Yes; Liquor: Full; Parking: Metered street spaces.