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Review: Somerset Is Worthy of Its (Considerable) Buzz

The Boka Restaurant Group delivers another hit with a dash of country club chic, and executive chef Lee Wolen continues to challenge diners.

Clockwise from left: Juniper-rubbed venison loin; smoked beet tartare; Earl Grey, grapefruit, and hot fudge sundae   Photos: Jeff Marini

“I’m going to throw the patriot in front of the Maserati, OK?” I overheard one valet say to another on a recent Tuesday night outside Somerset, the “all-American club” adjacent to the Gold Coast’s shiny new hotel Viceroy. I feared the worst for this patriot until I realized the valets weren’t casually plotting a political murder but rather discussing their game plan for the double-parked Jeep on State Street. And then I feared the worst for Somerset.

The Boka Restaurant Group has opened 18 restaurants in 16 years, and every time they unveil one, I think: This is it. This is their dud. No one spins off that many good restaurants that quickly, all of them gorgeous, popular, and timely. The streak has to end eventually.

Somerset seemed ripe for that dubious honor. Could Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz, the Boka brain trust, really manage to drop a cool all-day restaurant into the Gold Coast, just a breath away from Gibsons, Carmine’s, and the rest in the tacky Viagra Triangle’s erogenous zone? And could they overcome Somerset’s press materials, which touted a country club theme with cringy decor influences, such as “vintage tennis fashion” and “fishing-boat speed racing”?

Yes, they could. And they did. Somerset, thankfully, emerges as a fine addition to BRG’s remarkable portfolio. The country club description turned out to be a red herring. AvroKO, the New York–based firm that designed BRG’s Swift & Sons and Momotaro, created an airy and tasteful space with high ceilings, jade banquettes, and a warm golden hue. It’s less a gluttonous celebration of wealth and privilege than a winking pastiche of it. “My grandmother belongs to a country club, and it doesn’t look anything like this,” says executive chef Lee Wolen. “We just aim for an atmosphere that people want to sit in.”

And sit they do. They also stand and jostle, and I saw at least one amped-up patron at the packed bar bouncing. The action never slows: not at breakfast, when the tony clientele tucks into fancy-pants garlic sausage hash and white peach Bellinis. Nor at lunch, when everyone seems to be polishing off sandwiches made with roasted Slagel Farms turkey and avocado. Cocktail hour appears to start around 4 and bleeds deep into dinner service, bumping Somerset’s energy to yet higher levels.

All praise to Wolen and his crew of eight—count ’em—sous chefs, who have their feet on the accelerator together. The American menu looks straightforward at first glance, but it has depth. After launching with billowy Parker House rolls glazed with butter and dill, you could settle into obligatory starters such as oysters or crudo. But those offerings give way here to cockeyed gems like the soft, hushpuppy-like fritters of corn and salt cod—crispy bar food ideal for dunking into a thick, chive-wreathed malt vinegar aïoli.

Inside Somerset and a caramelized apple tart
From left: Inside Somerset; caramelized apple tart

The kitchen can go delicate without sacrificing flavor, as in the seasonal roasted squash and Honeycrisp apple salad with radicchio, glistening slivers of aged goat cheese, and a sparingly applied brown butter vinaigrette. The wood-grilled Spanish octopus takes Somerset’s vibrant flavors to sophisticated heights, the meaty mollusk mingling with tart radishes and a cooling sweet potato and sesame purée. It’s a precisely calibrated three-star dish.

Wolen is too talented and restless to take the path of least resistance. He didn’t at Boka, which has preserved its Michelin star since 2011 (Wolen joined the kitchen in 2014), nor at the Lobby at the Peninsula Chicago, where he earned four stars from this publication. He could easily coast at Somerset. But instead of doing so by, say, serving a straight-up beef tartare that would no doubt please the masses, Wolen challenges diners. His eclectic rendition mixes dry-aged beef with finely chopped shiitake mushrooms, radish strips, and pickled mustard seeds under a canopy of crispy fried mushroom shreds, all of which he dares you to spread on a slice of grilled sourdough bread. (One bite and my slice imploded.) It’s unusual and almost magnificent. The juniper-rubbed New Zealand venison loin, its tender pink flesh absorbing fleur de sel crystals and brown butter, gets goosed with sunchokes, pears, huckleberries, and little venison sausage nubs. It is magnificent.

The menu’s centerpiece is a pair of so-called suppers for two. One option features a whole wood-grilled daurade with endive, cauliflower, and citrus. All well and fine, but that’s just a sideshow to the wondrous whole roasted chicken. “The chef wants to be known for chicken,” said our waiter, which made me laugh, because when I quizzed Wolen in 2013 about his virtuosic brioche-stuffed chicken at the Lobby, he said, “I don’t want to be known for the chicken forever.”

Roasted duck breast
Roasted duck breast

Five years later, he’s still crying fowl. For Somerset’s version, he brines a Cornish Rock Cross chicken for a day, pipes homemade chicken sausage under the skin, then trusses the bird and uses fans to dry out the skin overnight before roasting it at 430 degrees. The result is impossibly soft, pliable meat under a crisp golden crust that pops with that garlicky sausage layer, which you don’t see unless you know to look for it. Wolen told me he eats the chicken every day and thinks it’s better than the old version. I agree. With or without the wonderful sides of scallion-littered polenta and caramelized delicata squash, it’s stunning.

I have no complaints about Lee Zaremba’s Playboy Club–inspired cocktails, particularly an energizing piña colada made with George Dickel Tennessee whiskey, Jamaican black rum, LaCroix coconut-flavored sparkling water, and pineapple juice. But more impressive is the wine list, which, despite the cornball section headers (“Celebration,” “Precision,” “Seduction”), is versatile and dynamic, with more than 30 affordable by-the-glass options.

Seared scallops
Seared scallops

Somerset’s battalion of pleasant staffers let their personalities shine, for better or worse. Our effusive waiter came on stronger than an overturned truck of Axe body spray. But after mentioning at least three times that he was from Florida and repeatedly barreling into the table’s conversation, he finally picked up on my party’s leisurely pace and adjusted like a pro. “I’m on your time now,” he said while we negotiated endlessly over what to order. That’s what you want to hear.

Yes, the BRG hot streak is still alive. And Katz and Boehm have since opened another apparent stunner, Bellemore on West Randolph. In fact, they may be a tad too hot; a recent fire in the ductwork above Somerset’s wood grill put a scare into the team. But Wolen’s staff didn’t even pause service. A few nights later, they cranked out 350 covers. Somerset, clearly, has energy to burn.

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