NetWorking in Boston: Chef Daniel Bruce


James Wright, Senior Editor

Published on
March 14, 2014

Chef Daniel Bruce is one of the city’s culinary pioneers, having dropped his anchor at the Boston Harbor Hotel for the past quarter-century. He now oversees two of the city’s hottest spots: Meritage, the ultimate in indulgence, and Rowes Wharf Sea Grill, where seafood always takes center stage. The Maine native loves his local fish and has demanding quality standards, but he appreciates even the simplest of dishes.

Bruce, 54, who has been the driving force behind the Boston Wine Festival each February since its inception in 1990, always knew he’d be a chef. His grandmother, he says, was not only an amazing cook but also a master preserver, making her own jellies and pickles. “The house would always smell great and there was a sense of happiness around the table,” he says. It’s a safe bet to say that if you’re lucky enough to get a table at Meritage or Sea Grille, happiness will surround you too.

What are some of your favorite seafood-and-wine pairings?
I have many memorable ones. I really am a fan of rich seafood like scallops and lobster paired with an oaky chardonnay. I particularly like them with corn because the creaminess matches well. I like a cabernet sauvignon with briny seafoods like oysters, clams and smoked salmon.

What comes first in a pairing, the food or the wine?
The wine. It’s the only way I’ve ever done it. Taste first, that’s my catchphrase. I taste all the wines before I even consider doing a dish with them. In a regular year, I try about 1,000 wines, easily. I love it. With my favorite pairings, it’s such a specific approach that I take, developing ingredients, techniques and a dish that will work. Tasting it together is the ultimate passion for me.
For a specific example, I have a Patz and Hall (from Sonoma) wine with citrus edge and a thin line of almond. So I’ll do a pan seared John Dory. I also picked up a little pear, so I’ll reduce green pear and chardonnay with a twist of almond oil. The whole dish becomes a recreation of the wine flavors.

If you could have just one fish, prepared any way, what would it be?
That’s tough — so many great things. I love black sea bass. Beautiful; it has a delicate, flaky edge to the flesh but I also love the skin as it gets nice and crispy, mottled white and black — one of my all-time favorite fishes. There’s also nothing better than a 6- to 7-inch brook trout, fried in a pan with cornmeal and flour while ice fishing. Simple.

What do you look for in a seafood vendor and how many do you buy from?
I use three. I have longtime relationships with them and they know what I’m looking for and they can use my name if they want. I still check in most of the fish myself. They’re so beautiful when they come in all pristine. If it’s not as fresh as possible and exactly what I’m looking for, how can I do a dish? My expectations are pretty high. My guests expect nothing but the best.

How do your two restaurants differ from each other?
Sea Grill is more casual. It’s an everyday restaurant you can go to two or three times a week to get the freshest fish possible. The menu is mostly fish, simply seasoned, and people like that. You come to Boston you should have great fish without too many layers of flavors. Meritage is big into wine. The dishes reflect a more sophisticated edge. If I had two restaurants doing even close to the same thing I’d be competing with myself. I’d rather compete against Todd [English], Lydia [Shire] and Barbara [Lynch].

How has fine dining in Boston evolved during your career?
When I first came to Boston there were maybe two great restaurants to go to. It’s grown; there’s at least 50 now that are all fantastic because the training is [more accessible] and the skill level has really increased from one generation to the next. People are going out more, which is good for people like me.

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