What’s the most deeply uncool place you could be forced to hang out in in these wild times? Is it a private elephant ranch operated by the NRA? Nope. Is it a serial masturbators’ support group? You’re wrong. Is it a white supremacist drum circle? Close. It’s Mar-a-Lago, Donald Trump’s private golf club in Palm Beach, Florida. Given the inordinate amount of time President Circus Peanut has spent there and at other golf clubs during his term to date, country clubs carry such a stigma that I wouldn’t bank on them if I were a restaurateur looking to open a fresh concept in a big blue city—and that’s even before you ponder the long history of private clubs that practiced exclusivity based not just on socioecomic disparity but on race and religion too.
Country clubs are square like saltines.
It’s very rare that the Boka Restaurant Group does something uncool. And yet “Country club culture” is the phrase BRG has chosen to describe the vibe of Somerset, its 14th step toward industry-wide domination. Those three words might seem lame in any other neighborhood, but this is the Gold Coast—the one place they’d probably fly. Located behind the facade of the Cedar Hotel at the base of the rippled, gleaming new Viceroy Chicago and towering over the Viagra Triangle, the restaurant is in fact gorgeous. Gold Coasters will dig its luminosity: brass fixtures shimmer over blue banquettes and warm woods, bathed in golden light from atrium windows towering above the second-floor dining room, which is outfitted with a restroom foyer devoted to the gentlemanly sport of elephant polo. Because colonialism, bro. They should also feel at home among servers dressed in khaki and pale blue blazers, children of the less fortunate, forced to work for a living. And they might feel aspirational gazing at the list of “members,” regulars and investors in Boka Group restaurants whose names have been embossed on brass tags and hung on the wall.
The chef has described breakfast, lunch, and dinner at these new digs, unpoetically, as “food people like to eat.” While that leaves a lot to the imagination, you’ll see that it amounts to the usual broad array of dishes appealing to a wide range of eaters and typically found at hotel restaurants: the flatbread, the salmon, the goddamn cheeseburger. Still, the menu does manage to reflect a number of trends habitual Chicago restaurantgoers have gotten used to seeing lately: the crudite plate, the charred vegetables, the squid-ink pasta with seafood. Most importantly, the flavors on the plate manifest themselves with the same engaging and intuitive grace as they do at Boka.
Of course, there’s beef tartare, lush with dry-aged minerality, into which is folded an equally meaty shiitake mushroom jam and mayonnaise whipped with the beef’s rendered fat, all that richness cut with pickled mustard seeds and sweet apple batons. It’s a memorable interpretation of this standby, but not as unforgettable as the smoked beet tartare, the purple root rendered down into a kind of cool, sweet hash studded with crunchy bits of broken sunflower seed and topped with a snowcap of sharp goat Gouda and dollops of cumin-spiked yogurt. Pillowy thumb-shaped corn-and-salt-cod fritters with tangy malt-vinegar aioli are the bar snack of the year, while fat chunks of grilled octopus garnished with celery leaves and radish coins top an understory of dill-flecked tahini alongside crunchy sesame seeds and charred cucumber.
Among four salads, sweet delicata squash and honeycrisp apples joust with bitter radicchio, escarole, and walnuts, with shaved goat cheese and a brown-butter vinaigrette that makes this plate amount to a worthy descendant of the Waldorf salad (though not intentionally, Wolen tells me).
There’s a trio of pastas distinguished by the aforementioned squid-ink chitarra, unusually thick and ropy strands of pasta tangling with calamari and prawns in a lobster-cherry tomato sauce. It’s a solid version of this increasingly ever-present pasta. Tagliolini sets itself apart still further as a one-plate mental support system, the pasta raveled amid an umamic mushroom bolognese top-loaded with pecorino and toasty fried garlic.
Actual full entrees appear on this menu—proteins, no less, at the center of the plate for a refreshing change, supported by sauces and vegetables. Following the season, mushrooms are big: tiny shimeji caps litter a silky sea bass fillet blanketed in a buttery sauce made from their fermented stems, and a similarly luscious length of beef short rib is hidden under a forest floor of bitter Chinese broccoli and lengths of chewy maitake, all deepened with the tangy fermented depth of black garlic beef jus. Meanwhile, ruby-red slices of venison tenderloin, clean as beef, are arrayed with shaved pear amid pools of nutty sunchoke puree and huckleberry-sweetened jus.
A large-format family-style entree marks a return, in a way, to the dish Wolen made his name on. It’s not exactly the dramatic whole roasted chicken from his Lobby days, but it’s close enough: a whole bronzed disarticulated bird, its crispy skin jacketing a layer of stuffing with roasted garlic and chicken sausage that in turn protects the tender, juicy meat below. Served with a side of polenta and charred delicata squash rounds, this fowl returns the chef to the ranks of the best chicken slingers in town.
A trio of sides reflects seasonal woodsiness and the prevailing trend of chefs painting their vegetables with carbon. Charred broccoli dances with shards of crackly chicken skin, almonds, and cool yogurt. Similarly, caramelized brussels sprouts are lightened with crumbled feta and sweet dates with crispy nduja bits and an aioli whipped with the rendered meat butter. And finally, more fungi: chopped grilled maitakes tossed with sunflower seeds and watercress, with glutamate-boosting miso aioli.
Ace Boka pastry chef Meg Galus weighs in with some hits and misses. A texturally absorbing parfait of Concord ice cream, crunchy bits of meringue, and creamy fromage blanc has been sadly retired for the season. Some version of a gussied-up candy bar seems to end up on every menu these days, but Galus’s is distinctively deconstructed: bites of dense, chewy brownie are obscured by ropes of nutty caramel and a scoop of lightly tannic milk chocolate-chai ice cream. On the other hand a concentric blob of butterscotch pudding sided with coffee-Kahlua ice cream in a pool of bitter caramel sauce bears an unfortunate resemblance to something you might encounter at the dog park, while a caramelized apple tart topped with graham-cracker streusel disintegrates into a smear of vanilla creme at the touch of a fork.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Somerset is its wine list, loaded with interesting and affordable bottles that buck the standard of the neighborhood. Take the fruity red Beaujolais Julien Sunier for $54, or the limited-edition Portuguese Tiago Teles Maria da Graça, a smooth red with a lingering earthiness ($49).
Somerset isn’t cheap, but playful, affordable wines like that, along with Wolen’s fresh interpretations of classic American seasonal food, go a long way to undercut the weird Anglo-establishment concept this restaurant embraces. You can almost forget that Carl Spackler could be out back blowing up gophers under the green of Bushwood Country Club. v