At Somerset Tap House, there is no chef. Instead, you’ll find a restaurant overseen by a Whole Foods Market “Team Leader,” or rather, several Team Leaders, whose collective goal, I learned after speaking with two of them, is to deliver “great product” in “a new full-service concept.” So, essentially: good food and table service (with an extra helping of jargon), all inside a restaurant tucked into Portland’s Whole Foods Market.

Once you are inside the semicircular glass-enclosed dining space with its tall, tufted, nailhead benches, mid-century scoop-style bar stools and dropped, wood-paneled platform ceiling, it’s actually possible to forget that you are about to eat a meal inside a 46,000-square-foot retail colossus. The visuals and space planning both conspire to make Somerset Tap House feel like a separate entity with an identity of its own, and that’s a good thing.

Unfortunately, the illusion of separateness is a Potemkin village that doesn’t extend beyond the threshold of the pub. Despite a locked exterior entrance that leads directly into the parking lot, there is currently only one way in and out of the restaurant, and it is through a tangle of supermarket checkout lines. Jeff Gibson, Meat Team Leader and one of the senior Whole Foods staffers who designed the menu at Somerset Tap House, told me that this is not an accident. Officially, the company has concerns about people taking open alcoholic drinks out onto the patio and then through the entrance to the market. But when you consider that supermarket employees and shoppers (especially families) are, according to Gibson, the restaurant’s key target audiences, it makes a particular kind of corporate sense to close off any direct access and instead funnel everyone through the store.

I learned first-hand how powerful this commercial corralling can be when I visited Somerset Tap House with three adults and two elementary-school age children. When we arrived and made the longish walk past the Whole Foods tills, my guests began sketching out details of an unplanned, after-dinner supermarket excursion, improvising a shopping list that hit seven items by the time we arrived at the bar. As our harried server/host/bartender – the only front-of-house staff in the restaurant that evening – told us, “We don’t serve dessert, but the store bakery makes great cookies,” the kids quickly added ice cream, chocolate and some of those cookies to the list. And that is how the cost of our visit nearly doubled before we had even taken a bite.

With so many people at the table, we were able to order a very wide cross-section of dishes, beginning with a few solid starters, like the Bang Bang Cauliflower ($8), deep fried florets of panko, flour and cornstarch-breaded cauliflower with a crunchy exterior and soft, savory interior, served with a local (but not house-made) Schlotterbeck & Foss sweet chili sauce. Or the thick-cut, skin-on Belgian style pub fries ($5), cooked to order and seasoned with rosemary oil and parmesan. Our favorite of the appetizers was the grilled Caesar salad ($7), sprinkled with lots of cracked pepper and a crisp, rustic cornbread crumble. With the extra dimension of flavor from the sweet cornbread and smoky char on the romaine, we (and especially the children) didn’t even miss the anchovies.

We also shared a few less exciting starters, like a dreary hummus plate ($5) where the star of the dish was a mound of crinkle-cut potato chips dusted with outsourced DennyMike’s garlic and paprika-flavored Pixie Dust. Sadly, the hummus they were intended to liven up was a flavorless beige glob. And the oppositely problematic wings ($6 for 6/$10 for 12), made from antibiotic- and hormone-free chicken and prepared in two styles, Sriracha Buffalo (another DennyMike’s seasoning) and salt and pepper. Both varieties arrived still moist inside, but were adventurously overseasoned.


Perhaps most disappointing is that the kitchen’s enthusiasm with the pre-made spice mix is probably the biggest risk Somerset Tap House takes. Indeed, the sandwich list reads like the mathematical average of 100 standard American pub menus. If you asked the statistician Nate Silver to design a hamburger based on national polling, this is what you might get.

That makes perfect sense when you consider that every single plate has been workshopped extensively. According to Gibson, “There are lots of people who are involved in the project. So when you’re an executive chef in your own restaurant, you make your own decisions, whereas here, there are lots of sets of eyes on things to determine if they make sense, they follow the culture of the company, they represent who we are, and they help build the brand.”

With no single person’s creative vision to guide the menu, you wind up with perfectly average sandwiches like the grilled cheese ($7) on Whole Foods Market sourdough and filled with – no surprise – a blend of anonymous cheeses designed not to offend, rather than to delight. Or the lobster roll ($18), a standard mayonnaise and celery salt recipe, made with cryo-vaced lobster that, while local, tasted like it was a few thousand miles away from where it was caught.

The best sandwich we ate was a tofu sandwich ($10), featuring a slice of firm tofu crusted in (pre-made) Drum Rock Fis-Chic batter and fried to exactly the right crisp, golden doneness. Had the bottom bun not dissolved halfway through the meal, thanks to a careless layering of tomato, lettuce and pickles, this would have been a knockout. As it was, it was simply the only sandwich memorable enough to order again.

Other dishes were unfortunately below average, like chewy, flavor-free fish and chips ($16) or the poorly executed Somerset burger ($13) that came to our table blistered black on the outside and cold and raw at its center. Worst of all was a tragically overcooked grilled chicken sandwich ($9), burnt to a cinder and lubricated with chevre before being slid into a Whole Foods Market bakery sesame roll. It was so scorched that it was completely inedible to both the 9-year-old who ordered it and the grown-ups tasked with finishing it.

Fortunately, some excellent local beverages were available to help bolster the adults’ appetites, including a toasty, chocolatey Burnside Brown Ale ($6), and a fruity, very hoppy Wanderlust Farmhouse Ale ($6), both from Portland’s Foundation Brewing Company. Those, plus a few glasses of vibrantly floral Le Charmel rose ($9), made the meal of largely characterless pub grub much more pleasant. When I asked our overtaxed server if the market sold those same beers and wines for people to take home, he told me, “Not everything, because the store has a different alcohol license. But we have a lot of what you ate in the store,” as if our entire meal had been a demonstration of how to cook with Whole Foods groceries.

Later, in both my conversation with Gibson and a casual chat with a Whole Foods cashier on another visit, I heard about the restaurant’s upcoming plans to link Somerset Tap House more tightly with the supermarket’s prepared foods business, a move that promises to distribute menu decisions across an even wider range of senior employees. Consequently, it also seems destined to make the food even more blandly average and dependent on pre-made ingredients and sauces – not to mention very likely to involve at least one more corporate Team Leader, just for good measure.

Burnside Brown Ale is among a rich selection of local brews.

Burnside Brown Ale is among a rich selection of local brews.

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an Internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at [email protected] and on Twitter @AndrewRossME.

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