Proximity to a good neighborhood restaurant is bubble-proof. The ability to push a stroller from the front porch to a plate of perfect eggs Benedict can boost home value like nothing else, except maybe parking and a decent elementary school. Still, the promise of a Sunday-morning walk to Fatapple's may seal more real-estate deals than access to a talented first-grade teacher. A welcoming little neighborhood place is a genuine amenity, even in a neighborhood as saturated with restaurants as Oakland's Rockridge.
Owner Gary Rizzo probably didn't imagine Somerset would feel so venerable just three months after seating the first walk-ins. On the site of a moldering Chinese takeout parlor, he captured perfectly the dark, woody character of the Craftsman bungalows that crowd Rockridge, in a flawless vernacular of blackened varnish and tarnished bronze.
Rizzo says he wanted to suggest something of the area's leafy, turn-of-the-20th-century vibe. And even his choice of a name (vaguely inspired by the British novelist W. Somerset Maugham) has the WASP-y, garden-party glow of a Kate Winslet historical drama. But the library chairs, Restoration Hardware sconces, and astringent quality of the light flooding the restaurant's Edward Hopper reproductions all capture North Oakland's own plush urban nostalgia.
So, too, does the basket of buttermilk biscuits and rosemary focaccia that shows up at the table in the evenings, Americana butted up against Cal-Italian. It says the food that follows won't rise too far above comfortable, despite dabbling in a few international cuisines.
It's a formula Rizzo shaped over the course of a decade at Miss Millie's, the Noe Valley restaurant he packed up early last year for his move across the Bay Bridge. Miss Millie's menu survived the move almost intact, as did both front- and back-of-house staffs. Somerset has the well-worn patina of a concept that lost its sheen in its original setting, but has acquired new gloss in a different one.
Nothing shines brighter than the starters and salads on Somerset's dinner menu. The goat-cheese pudding soufflé is essential. It had the satisfying texture of warm spoon bread rather than the confectionery fussiness of a classic soufflé, with the wholesome, barnyard tang of goat cheese to match. Its salad (a clump of spinach under a little fan of Fuji apple slices) sent out a fresh, frank blast of cider vinegar.
The pear salad was delicious, too. It changes as new fruits come into season the one we tasted combined watercress and subtly sugary walnut pieces with pomegranate seeds and slices of Bosc pear. Best of all was the cheese, a mixture of generic blue crumbles and Point Reyes Original Blue. It had the pungency of Roquefort, but was lighter, less oily, and fresher tasting. Like a sprinkling of salt on a wedge of cantaloupe, the cheese brought out the pear's sweetness.
It was filling, but one of the daily- changing pizzas made a satisfying first course. The crust was medium thick, in the semi-bready style that recalled classic California restaurant pizzas. Like all the breads and pastries we tried here, it revealed in-house baker Ever Aguilar's skill. The topping was delicious, too: a welter of broccoli rabe pieces, hunks of Hobbs-brand sausage fragrant with fennel, and pecorino shards baked crispy in the oven's heat.
A big bowl of shattery, long-cooked chuck stained dark with wine, braised beef stew gave off a rustic blast of thyme. Country fried chicken had the blackened, appealingly acrid coating that comes from shallow frying in a heavy skillet. Its pan gravy soaking into salty garlic mashed potatoes was tasty, too.
The food became less satisfying the more we poked around in Somerset's American-style comfort dishes. Though we liked its toothy pieces of twisty gemelli pasta, firm sautéed mushrooms, and gritty sanding of toasted breadcrumbs, an entrée-sized bowl of macaroni and cheese struck us as uncomfortably rich. Sharp white Cheddar radiated a healthy tartness, but the sauce had a grainy, tapioca-like consistency that was riddled with tiny lumps.
The chicken potpie looked enormous, a big soufflé dish capped with fragile biscuit dough like a casserole covered with cling film. Underneath the crust, the thin stew teemed with pieces of broccoli, potato, and hefty strands of white-meat chicken. The stew had an odd, cayenne-spiked taste reminiscent of seafood bisque, as if shrimp shells had gone into the stock.
The kitchen, headed by Rogelino Lopez, has to cover a lot of ground on Somerset's sprawling menus. Things like lumpy sauces and stocks eked out with strange additions aren't entirely surprising they're lapses of supervision. But turkey meatloaf was bad in a way that was purely bizarre. The two thick slabs had a smooth and uniformly pasty texture, as if they'd been formed mostly out of breadcrumbs soaked in turkey stock. And their puréed chile sauce, baked until it formed a kind of glaze, was so spicy it seemed jarring.
Weekend brunch may be the best meal for seeing what the kitchen is capable of. Miss Millie's built its reputation on brunch, and Somerset may, too. Dungeness crab hash was an overwhelmingly generous tangle of ingredients and flavors. It was hard to know where to dive into the mound of crabmeat, potatoes, roasted yellow peppers, fennel, and peas. The poached eggs had been drizzled with chile purée, which pretty much blotted out any other taste. But the hash had such a prodigious pile of flavors to blot out, containing so many pricey ingredients, that it seemed luxurious even if its taste was one-dimensional. Definitely ask for the chile sauce on the side.
The same generous quality marked huevos rancheros. The dish is a dense landscape of scrambled eggs, black beans, and a huge pile of saucy pork carnitas poised on a thick tortilla. Buzzing with warm-tasting cumin and dried oregano, the carnitas were fantastic. These were brunch dishes with the scope and polish of dinner entrées anywhere else. And though owner Rizzo says he located in Rockridge pretty much by accident (he'd been looking for spaces in the city), Somerset seems a natural to pry brunch business away from Berkeley's beloved but mobbed Rick & Ann's.
In fact, Somerset feels like such a generous place that it's easy to overlook the restaurant's flaws. Rizzo himself is as personable as some romanticized old-fashioned merchant. On each of our five visits he was working the tables or the front door, chatting up customers, even hugging ones we suspect had driven in from Noe Valley for a taste of comfort a tribute to Rizzo and his staff. Young Somerset already feels like some genuine neighborhood amenity, despite uneven food. That may be the most comforting thing about this restaurant that already feels old: You know it'll be around for as long as people keep pushing their strollers here.
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