When Daniel Bruce opened the wine-focused Meritage at the Boston Harbor Hotel in 2002, he took a different approach to menu structure. Rather than divide items into appetizers and entrées, he uses six wine-based categories into which the various dishes fall. A plate of cod, for example, might fall under the “light white” heading, while ostrich is listed under “spicy reds.” Bruce recently spoke about his menu development process.
How did this idea of pairing food to wine come about?
I founded the Boston Wine Festival. The concept was to have wine dinners hosted by the wine makers in 1990. Then I came up with dishes that worked with the wine. After twelve years of doing this, it made sense to rethink the restaurant concept. The approach to appetizers, salads and entrées could be different than most people think, and especially how they interface with wine. If you pay homage to the wine it shows off the food even better because a reflection of both is better than just one.
What comes first, the menu or the wines?
After having paired 3,000 or 4,000 wines over the years you start to realize that it’s not the varietal that makes as much difference as it is the terroir and the style of the wine making. I realized that if I was going to do pairings, it had to be done less so on a varietal basis and more based on the flavor profile of the wine. That’s how I decided on my categories of sparklers, light and fruity whites, and so on. When it comes to the menu all my decisions come from tasting the wine first. The wine then becomes another ingredient in my flavor palate when I develop a particular dish—always keeping in mind that subtlety is better than assertiveness when you’re talking about wine and food matches.
Can you describe a typical pairing and one that is more unusual?
Oysters with Chablis, Champagne, a Chenin Blanc or a Sancerre—those are some great matches because of that beautiful acidity that finishes the wine and the vibrant citrus. But I’ve also served striped bass with Barolo. A lot of people don’t think of white fish with red wine, but striped bass happens to be quite meaty, and if you wood-grill it and serve it with, say, a forbidden or imperial black rice that will act as a liaison to the wine, that’s a beautiful match.
You have at least a half-dozen wines by the glass in each category. How much wine by the glass do you sell?
We probably do about 25 percent wines by the glass, which, I think, can be attributed to the fact that you can order small plates and large plates of anything on the menu. As a result I end up doing five, six courses for people because they want to taste a wide spectrum of flavor, and then they go with wine by the glass.
Do you tend to attract a more wine-savvy crowd?
I do. But that doesn’t mean we try to limit it. I really try to make it very approachable and user-friendly so that those who don’t want wine don’t feel they have to. But that being said, about 85 [percent] to 90 percent of the people coming to the restaurant order wine. When you come to Meritage, it almost entices you to try something.
I have 1,200 bottles on the wine list, so it allows a whole wide range of wines. But we don’t try to steer our customers to only the high-end wines. I do not like [to give] the impression of trying to pressure them, and, you know, it’s benefited us. Our beverage sales are almost as high as our food sales.