Thursday, March 16, 2017
There’s a restauranteering Justice League of sorts that recently assembled on East Anapamu Street, where the folks behind some of the country’s more exalted food and drink establishments are now running Somerset Restaurant, which opened at the end of 2016.
Though not yet as famous as their former bosses, this superhero staff includes executive chef Lauren Herman (who worked for celeb chef Suzanne Goin at AOC and Lucques for eight years), pastry chef Christina Olufson (a nine-year Goin alum, and also Herman’s wife), and cocktail/spirits director George Piperis, who learned from mixology guru Julian Cox at Blue Tavern and Nuance on lower State Street and went on to open Cox’s The Fiscal Agent in Studio City, Timothy Hollingsworth’s Otium in Bunker Hill, and Miro in downtown L.A. Tying them all together is general manager/wine director Hayden Felice. He ran Tom Colicchio’s Craft and Craftbar empire in Manhattan for 11 years before moving in 2012 to Los Angeles, where he helped Roy Choi of Kogi taco truck fame launch the seven food and drink outlets at The Line hotel in Koreatown.
They were lured to Santa Barbara by architectural designer, hotelier, and Montecito resident Steve Hermann, who purchased the former Arts & Letters Café in 2015 for more than $2 million from Frank Goss. Hermann spent more than a year and “millions” of dollars renovating the space in what’s being billed as a “European Grand Café” style, complete with 100-year-old olive trees in the iconic courtyard. (Incidentally, Hermann’s brother, Mark, worked as a sales rep at this newspaper for many years, but left last year to open a new hotel in Palm Springs, where Steve rejuvenated the historic L’Horizon Resort & Spa into a thriving scene.)
In the run-up to Somerset’s opening, Steve Hermann, who’s lived in Montecito about eight years, managed to ruffle some State Street feathers by proclaiming to one blog that Santa Barbara’s “food doesn’t taste very good.” There were also confusing claims that the restaurant was “very high-end dining” yet flip-flop appropriate. And though long-awaited, the opening was quite rushed at the end in order to start serving before the holidays. So Somerset became an easy target for online kvetching, both from the keep-L.A.-away contingent who disdain shiny, big-city aspirations and from the crowd of folks who balk at paying more than $20 for anything.
But those who enjoy excellent food, creative cocktails, well-curated wine lists, and knowledgeable service tend to float above such digital aspersions, and we’re finding all we could hope for inside Somerset. Hermann’s millions made for a tremendously glitzy interior, somewhere between Old Hollywood and fin de siècle Paris, while the patio — which was perfectly charming and peaceful in the Arts & Letters era — now also exudes a polished wine-country feel.
The food, meanwhile, is sophisticated and stylized in line with modern menu trends yet familiar and addictive like home cooking. My recent favorite bites have included the spaghetti with uni, lobster bisque, and nori breadcrumbs, excellently briny with an al dente snap; refreshingly spiced gingered beets with coconut milk yogurt, tangerines, kumquats, and arugula; and the best rack of lamb I’ve ever had, with tamarind-citrus glaze and a heavenly flaky kabocha squash gratin.
That’s the work of Lauren Herman, who was born and raised in La Cañada, where her dad runs a hot-rod shop full of flathead motors. She was spoiled by her mom’s from-scratch cooking, so much so that she dreaded eating at friends’ homes, and she opted for culinary school when she realized her brothers would take over the hot rods. Soon after graduation, she was working for Goin at Lucques, where she met Olufson, and eventually became chef de cuisine at AOC.
After eight years learning from Goin, “it was time to start doing something else,” said Herman, who was considering her own L.A. restaurant. “We were about to sign a lease actually.” But AOC fan Steve Hermann had been telling her about his project in Santa Barbara since December 2015. So in August, Herman and Olufson — who married three years ago at the County Courthouse, which you can even see from Somerset — decided, “Let’s do an adventure,” and made the move north. Today, they live in Summerland. “We open the door and see the ocean every day,” said Herman. “I definitely feel than my insanity level has come down a bit.”
It also helps that she has freedom in the kitchen. “This was always the food that I wanted to put forward,” said Herman, who works closely with her favorite farmers, including some who attended her wedding. “I definitely cook with French-Mediterranean inflections. You can touch on all of the countries and get so many flavors and dynamics. I want to cook good food that people crave — nothing too hoity-toity, keeping it approachable.” She believes her menu may be the most farmers’-market-driven in town and is proud to say it’s 90 percent or more organic, with a sustainable meat and fish program, too.
But her deliciousness has strong competition, both from her wife’s almost magical desserts — try the churros with dipping sauces and horchata ice cream, or the impossibly airy crêpes, or, if it’s offered, the blood orange vacherin — and the cocktails. Piperis’s creations are seemingly alchemical, mysterious, and thought-provoking, from the duck-fat-washed bourbon in his renditions of the Old Fashioned to the forest-y notes of his In the Pines to the “tarragon air” foam of the Somerset Collins.
The Visalia native attended culinary school in San Francisco but then managed senior living facilities in Santa Barbara before returning to the restaurant business and getting into drinks at the series of restaurants inside the Hotel Indigo. Between Blue Tavern, Nuance, and the spots he helped with in L.A., Piperis opened six restaurants in three years and vowed to never do so again. “I was ready to become a florist — I was done,” he said. “Then I walked in here. There is something special about this place, and with Lauren.”
He signed on in November and developed the cocktail menu almost literally overnight. “I think I came up with four drinks in one 24-hour session,” he said. He’s focused on gaining his customers’ trust and taking us on an unintimidating mission of discovery. “I remember when cocktails used to be fun and not about us all trying to outsmart each other,” said Piperis, who believes that high-priced drinks should truly be remarkable. “I can’t stand people charging $14 for a standard cocktail. That should be something special, something that people talk about.”
Keeping this superhero squad moving forward with ample support from a well-trained staff of about 40 will be Felice’s hardest job, along with figuring out how Somerset fits into the grander Santa Barbara scene. He happily reports that, due to their farmer connections, they’ve been able to bring prices down, which must be a first in restaurant openings. But his work is cut out for him, with 150 seats to fill every night, many of them on a patio subject to closure due to rain.
Even though the opening was, as Herman said, “super-fast,” Felice was able to staff up on time, enlisting some of the more familiar server faces from around town. “Our team is strong,” said Felice. “People care.” He’s steadily growing the wine list, working in both hometown favorites like Stolpman syrah as well as Savennières chenin blanc and German riesling, plus older bottles he buys on auction. He plans to bring back lunch soon, recognizing that that was a strong suit in the Arts & Letter regime. “We hope to recapture some of that business and even grow it some,” he said.
Most adamantly, he assures that, contrary to online wankers, Somerset is not just a millionaire’s lark. “This is not a vanity project; it’s a business proposition,” said Felice of Steve Hermann’s motivation. “He wants to turn it into an institution.”