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DINING OUT

Tempting surprises

Burtons Grill

145 Turnpike Road (Route 114), North Andover

978-688-5600

www.burtonsgrill.com

Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday , 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday

Reservations recommended

Major credit cards accepted

Accessible to the handicapped

It helps to know some of the tricks when visiting Burtons Grill on a Saturday night.

We were surprised to call at 5 p.m. and to be told that the earliest available reservation was for 8:45. We discovered, however, that only half of the tables are set aside for reservations. The other half are for walk-ins. After all, this is a friendly and casual, come-as-you-are kind of eatery.

We arrived shortly after 6 to find plenty of available seating. We could even have enjoyed al fresco dining on the porch, in wicker-and-rattan deck furniture.

Second, be sure you drive up and around to the left when entering the parking lot. Burtons is located amid the Eaglewood Shops, and is perched firmly atop the sporting goods store. Don't park in front of that store and take the stairs. Rather, go around to the main entrance and enter at the same level.

Third and most important, always listen to the waitress. Our server, Erin, suggested the grilled stuffed zucchini ($7) as an appetizer of note. The menu described the dish as stuffed in herb cheese and tomato sauce, which didn't sound terribly beguiling. Well, just wait.

Opened in November 2005, Burtons refers to its cuisine as contemporary American fare. We enjoyed the comfy booths, high ceilings, and moody atmosphere. Grinders of whole pepper and chunky salt graced each table. The menu includes salads, seafood, burgers, and a change of specials about every three weeks. The two other Burtons locations are also in shopping malls, in Hingham and in South Windsor, Conn.

These people love their wine. Diners first enter to see a g lass-encased wine cellar straight ahead, replete with a dazzling array of varietals. The menu lists 99, with the 100th noted in the specials. Numerous choices of beer are offered as well, all of which are bottled. The specials include a featured martini ($9), which was watermelon the day of our visit.

Puffy white rolls with creamy garlic herb butter are promptly delivered to patrons after they are seated. The butter itself was worth the trip; we were tempted to ask for seconds if we weren't protecting our appetites. We also noticed that the salads being delivered to our neighbor's tables were gargantuan -- another reason to hold back on the rolls.

One of my companions started his meal with the ever-traditional clam chowder ($6). Although the chowder was as hearty as anywhere, the chef was a tad exuberant with the white pepper.

The zucchini appetizer simply floored me. Coated with golden-brown cheese, it was sumptuous. Green and yellow squash had been sliced lengthwise, paper thin, and rolled around layers of cheese. The topping was manchego, a nutty Spanish cheese. I would never have thought to pick this spectacular dish off the menu. Kudos to Erin, who claimed it as a favorite.

It was tempting to order one of the ``bronze" fish entrees, meaning that it was decked out in Cajun seasonings that were flavorful, though not spicy. The other options were grilled or fried. Prices ranged from $18 (tilapia) to $23 (swordfish or scallops).

I went for the Burtons cordon bleu ($19), envisioning a different dish. Two pan-seared chicken breasts were topped with Serrano ham, manchego cheese, and a lemon ``beurre blanc" (that's ``white butter," in case you don't speak French), served over risotto with asparagus. While it was perfectly satisfying, the chicken I'd had in mind would have been pounded and rolled, not layered. It was a bit salty because of the ham and sauce.

It was a toss-up whether we preferred the key lime pie or the chocolate mousse ($7 each), which was delicate with a true-chocolate taste. The mousse was smooth, not heavy or overly sweetened. Both desserts were a yummy conclusion to a nice evening out.

NANCY V. BURNS

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