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.