HAVING A SIGNATURE dish can be both a blessing and a curse. While it’s great to create something that gets people talking and in the door, try and change it or—heaven forbid!—take it off the menu and watch those fans become less than adoring. For chef Lee Wolen, that “it” dish has been chicken. Chicagoans first got a taste of his poultry prowess at The Peninsula, where his roasted chicken with brioche crumbs under its skin became legendary. (Wolen is the first to admit he was inspired by a dish from his previous gig at NYC’s Eleven Madison Park.) When he moved over to Boka, he brought a riff of that with him.
Now Wolen’s added American-leaning Somerset to his portfolio of chef duties, and his whole roasted chicken, here with housemade garlic-and-thyme chicken sausage stuffed under its skin, has quickly earned top-seller status. And for good reason: It’s delicious, with wonderfully juicy meat and crackly skin (word is it takes a four-day process to get it that way). “Chicken is my favorite thing to eat,” says Wolen. We can tell.
Located in the Gold Coast’s Viceroy Chicago hotel, Somerset is in that precarious position of having to please visitors whose palates may skew more middle-of-the-road and us locals, who, let’s face it, expect a lot from our restaurants these days. Wolen manages to walk that line skillfully with dishes that might sound simple on paper but are done with such care and precise techniques that everyone’s happy. There’s a cheeseburger and dry-aged rib-eye on the menu, though, just in case.
It doesn’t hurt that Somerset is gorgeous. (You’d never know that it’s located on the site of the former grungy Cedar Hotel, although the pretty brick facade remains, and its iconic neon sign is perched on the second floor.)
For its interior, cutting-edge design group AvroKO (Momotaro, Swift & Sons, Duck Duck Goat) found inspiration in American country clubs of the ’60s and ’70s, with some kitschy maritime accents thrown in. The front lounge, with its soaring ceiling, offers a great view of the patio and the top-notch people-watching the area offers. Sit at the bar and you’ll have a view of both of those as well as the dining room and large open kitchen just beyond. Those cushy swivel bar stools also make it a great spot to sip a perfectly made martini or wine served in the longest stemmed glass I’ve ever seen. There’s an upstairs dining room and bar, too, that’s more subdued but no less beautiful.
It was in the downstairs dining room, though, that five words I’d never thought I’d hear again in a restaurant were spoken: “We will bring bread shortly,” said our server. Warm and delicious bread at that, from talented pastry chef Meg Galus, whose handiwork can also be found at Boka and Swift & Sons.
A wood-burning grill is at the soul of many of Wolen’s dishes here, including a tasty and unique smoked-beet tartare. Rather than hitting you over the head, the roasted and chopped beets are imbued with a subtle smoky flavor and are finished with sunflower seeds and a drizzling of cumin-flavored yogurt, and paired with discs of flatbread. “This tastes likes dirt smells after a spring rain,” said my Iowa-born dining companion. He meant that in the best way possible.
Wolen takes some risks with his beef tartare too. Fried bits of shiitake mushrooms replace the traditional Parmesan component and the umami that it brings. Rendered fat from the aged beef is added into an aioli that binds the pickled radishes and chunks of meaty goodness. On top, a dusting of cured shaved egg yolks.
Be sure to order the Spanish octopus, which also benefits from time on that grill as well its pairing with a Middle Eastern-esque yogurt-and-tahini sauce, dill, cucumbers and candied sesame seeds.
In keeping with the need to have broad appeal, there are four salads to choose from. Baby lettuce with chunks of salty feta and a Champagne vinaigrette was good enough. But it’s the kale and Brussels-sprout salad that I prefer, even though those two ingredients have had more menu time than they justly deserve. Here, Wolen fries up the sprout leaves until crispy and almost bacon-like, while the tender kale is cut into bite-size pieces. There’s pecorino, too, and crunchy cashews, all topped with a perky lemon-mustard dressing. My only criticism? More of those leaves, please.
If you dined at Boka, you no doubt experienced Wolen’s expertise with pasta. At Somerset, it’s no different. His mushroom Bolognese served with tagliolini offers bits of crispy garlic, slowly cooked mushrooms and pecorino in every bite. Duck leg gnocchetti is a perfect balance of toothsome petite dumplings, chunks of tender duck and sauteed kale. Be sure to order the latter in the smaller portion to save room for the chicken.
The half-dozen or so desserts from Galus are worthy of your attention too. The grape parfait with fromage blanc and concord ice cream is refreshing, while the butterscotch pudding with pecan praline, caramelized grains and coffee-Kahlua ice cream is as wonderfully rich as you’d expect and want.
“Just because you’re in a semi-casual setting,” says Wolen of Somerset’s more laid-back vibe as compared to Michelin-starred Boka, “that doesn’t mean the food can’t be mind-blowing.” We couldn’t agree more.
1112 N. State St., 312.586.2150
Breakfast and dinner daily, lunch Mon.-Fri., brunch Sat.-Sun.
Firsts, $12-$35; pasta, meat and fish, $14-$55; dessert, $3-$11