Scallop shells filled with tangy ceviche float on a misty cloud of dry ice. Wood smoke puffs out of a plate of smoked and raw beet salad as a server lifts the glass lid. Funky forest floor mushrooms served on cedar smell of woodland on a dewy morning.
At Boston Harbor Hotel’s Meritage Restaurant and Wine Bar, recently appointed chef de cuisine Keith Bombaugh aims to “tell a story with food.”
“There are rules, and then there are no rules,” the 28-year-old Falmouth native said of his attitude toward cooking. “I don’t want to create food people can make at home. I want to make people laugh and smile. I want these to be incredible experiences.”
Under Harbor Hotel executive chef and Boston Wine Festival auteur Daniel Bruce, Bombaugh has settled into his role and flexed his culinary muscles since he took up the post last November.
“Daniel has given me a lot of freedom,” Bombaugh said.
Bombaugh cultivated his culinary tricks at Chicago’s three Michelin-starred Alinea, a restaurant lauded for its gastronomic wizardry. But his skills are based in the classic training he received first at the now-shuttered Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Cambridge, and then at Barbara Lynch’s French-Italian-fused fine dining restaurant Menton in Fort Point.
Bombaugh’s return to the Boston scene was serendipitous, really. After deciding it was, “time to go out on my own,” he said, he first needed a break, so he came home for a vacation. He saw an ad for the Meritage position by chance, but was hesitant about a hotel role.
“Then I saw the view and knew where we could go with this,” he said, of first seeing the harbor from the restaurant’s window. “When you look out at the light on the water, you get a sublime feeling and realize how small we are. We want people to eat dinner and step back from the grind.”
Meritage’s menu is now divided into three sections. One is a 10-course tasting menu that includes the tangy, misty scallop dish. Bombaugh called the tasting menu “a journey.”
“It can be done in 95 minutes, but it’s best to set aside at least two hours to enjoy it,” he said. “I want people to feel like they are going to a place. The team talked about places we’d been, and I researched and tried to find the heart and soul of the place.”
There is also a four-course prix fixe with similar dishes, and an a la carte menu that adds some less experimental comfort food, like a 48-hour, red wine-braised short rib with pomme puree.
“We don’t want anyone to feel there isn’t something for them to enjoy,” Bombaugh said.
Meritage Restaurant and Wine Bar, 70 Rowes Wharf, Boston; meritagetherestaurant.com