Comfort on College Somerset
It’s a familiar pattern. San Francisco dwellers get tired of the high cost of housing, the scarcity of parking spaces, the cold, the daily hassle of city life, and eventually they move east to the sunnier days and easier ways of the East Bay. What’s not as familiar is for a restaurant to pick up and leave the city and relocate in the East Bay. But that’s what Somerset did.
Somerset is the San Francisco restaurant formerly known as Miss Millie’s—a beloved 24th Street breakfast restaurant that longed to be a dinner place. Owner Gary Rizzo held out for 10 years, but the dynamics of the upper–Noe Valley neighborhood meant the restaurant always struggled to draw a crowd at night. Determined to break out of his breakfast mold, Rizzo sought a better location in the city, but looked east after he came up empty. He landed in Rockridge on College Avenue, prime restaurant territory in these parts.
Rizzo took his restaurant, staff and menu, and carted them lock, stock and barrel to Oakland. In addition to the name, the clubby, wood-accented decor of the place is a change from the funky kitsch of Miss Millie’s. Although the restaurant does serve breakfast and brunch, Rizzo was determined not to get pigeonholed as a breakfast place. I came for dinner on my two visits. Breakfast will have to wait.
In spite of a few missteps in the kitchen and lapses in service, Somerset offers enjoyable, satisfying food and a generous spirit. The restaurant is strikingly handsome. The dark wood wainscoting, subtle spot lighting, wooden furniture and cozy bar make the place feel like a men’s club that suddenly opened its membership to all. The floor staff’s white dress shirts and black ties add to the sense of formality. Although the weather wasn’t cooperating at the time I visited, there’s an appealing trellis-covered patio out back for sunny days. It’s hard to believe this place was once a Chinese restaurant (King Shang, to be precise).
Somerset is rooted in American comfort food, but the menu is much broader. Starters are particularly strong and generally better than many of the entrees I tried. The goat cheese pudding soufflé ($8.50)—a quivering mound shimmying atop a salad of mixed greens and sliced apples—is wonderful. The tangy flavor of tart green apples sprinkled with a cider vinaigrette is a perfect match for the creamy goat cheese. The butter lettuce salad ($8.50) is another good opener: It looks like a classic chopped salad but boasts an original jumble of crisp lettuce, prosciutto, Point Reyes blue cheese, cherry tomatoes, chopped egg and bits of red onion. The assertive mustard vinaigrette was just the thing to tie it all together.
Fried ruby tomatoes ($8.50) definitely count as comfort food. Thick slabs of tomato are battered in a thick mantle of cornmeal and fried to a nubby, earthy brown. It’s a good dish, but the batter is applied a little too generously. Still, the tangy, crunchy salsa (tomato, onion, jalapeño, celery) helps keep doughy overload at bay.
The fried chicken ($14.50) was my favorite entree. Battered in thick—but not too thick—herb-flecked crust, the dark- and white-meat chicken was steaming hot and moist. The creamy garlic-mashed potatoes and dreamy gravy had me in a swoon, until I forked into one of the overcooked, bitter Brussels sprouts. This once-scorned vegetable has fought its way back to respectability, and it was sad to see the plucky little cabbage treated this way.
The roasted duck breast ($14.50), fanned out on the plate, was tender and flavorful but looked too perfect, like cold cuts. I longed for the verisimilitude of charred skin or a little fat. The wild rice served along side was too goopy. I liked the simplicity of the grilled wild salmon, served with spindly spears of grilled asparagus ($15.50), but the congealed, jelly-like Meyer lemon sauce malingering atop the fish has to go.
At night, the restaurant gets busy and service can suffer. When I asked whether the lamb sausage was made in-house my waiter replied, “I think so,” and walked away. (He was wrong, by the way.) On another occasion, when I asked for a new napkin, my request was met with a brusque, “Yeah, OK.” These are small things, but taken together they add up to a staff that lacks polish.
The dessert list (all $5.50) is a roundup of the regular suspects: apple crisp, molten chocolate cake, lemon meringue pie, crème brûleé. The molten chocolate cake was gummy and grainy and lacked the dribble of gooey chocolate that makes it such a favorite. The Grand Marnier crème brûlée won’t win points for originality, but at Somerset the workhorse dessert is as rich and creamy as they come. The rime of burnt sugar shattered pleasingly beneath the tap of my spoon.
The bar also pours a number of ports and rich, chocolately coffee drinks called borgias, fitting ways to end your meal and savor the good life here in the East Bay. In spite of a few disappointments, Somerset’s inviting, wide-ranging menu hits more than it misses, making this East Bay transplant worth seeking out.
—By Stett Holbrook
—Photography by Lara Hata
—Photography by Lara Hata