An Early Taste of Vegetable-Centric Semilla, Now Open in Williamsburg
Three seasons have passed since the last Chez Jose pop-up dinner transpired in a coffeehouse in Williamsburg, and during that hiatus, owners Jose Ramirez-Ruiz and Pam Yung have traveled the world, cooking at Madrid Fusion in Spain and Omnivore in Moscow -- both major international gatherings of the culinary elite. Yung also received a fellowship from the James Beard Foundation, which sent her to learn about grain and bread in Denmark, Rome, and South Carolina.
They came back to the States over the summer, though, because they formed a partnership with Joe Carroll -- who owns Fette Sau, St. Anselm, and Spuyten Duvil -- to open their own permanent place in Carroll's old Lake Trout space. They've just debuted Semilla, a vegetable-forward chef's counter that, Yung says, is meant to be a continuation of where they left off with the pop-up.
The tiny Havemeyer address is wide enough only to hold a U-shaped 18-seat chef's counter, the center of which opens up into the kitchen so that Yung and Ramirez-Ruiz, aided by one front-of-the-house server and one sous chef, can serve each party a multi-course dinner. Decor is sparse but clean, not exactly Scandinavian, but certainly inspired by its blond woods and functional design. And there is no menu -- just a drinks list, curated by Carroll, which features a well-curated and well-priced selection of wine and beer. You'll notice most groups are sharing a bottle. You should follow suit.
"We wanted to capture the same sort of vibe of the pop-up," says Yung of the setup. "It's about spontaneity and fun; it's not so serious. We're cooking for you. It's a tasting menu to most people, but we want it to be like you're coming over and it's someone's house -- that kind of trust. You don't know what's on the menu."
On the night we dined, animal protein made the menu only in the form of a garnish -- there was a sliver of foie gras tucked into a roll of parsnip, for instance -- though Yung says they'll eventually add more meat to the menu. But don't expect a wholesale overhaul of the vegetable-forward concept, which Yung says comes from working in kitchens around the world. "We've always had an interest in where everything comes from," she says. "We spent a lot of time in restaurants in Europe, and those have a farm on site or are closely linked to farms where products come from. We want that transparency."
That philosophy crystallized while she and Ramirez-Ruiz were at Isa, where they met Dan Machin, who owns a farm called Lone Acre. "He really inspired us," Yung says. "We had these conversations about vegetables, and he was bringing plants to us at different stages of development, so they had different flavor and texture. We learned that it was not all about a certain ripeness or level of maturity when it came to vegetables."
And finally, Yung points out that most cultures derive a lot of flavor from very little meat in their dishes, which is more sustainable for health and the environment. "We both eat meat, we both eat protein, but we feel that it should comprise a lesser part of the American diet," she says.
So that's the viewpoint baked into dinner at Semilla, which follows the seasons and changes regularly, and derives flavor from across the global canon. Last week, dinner started with arancini pooled with spicy miso, moved into those parsnip roll-ups and grilled leeks, traipsed through a pumpkin soup served in a hollowed-out pumpkin, eased into a trio of entree-like dishes -- including pickled mushrooms and a root vegetable-filled brioche -- and concluded with two desserts, one that married blueberries to black olives, another that played on figs. It was a meal that was as remarkable for its consistency as it was for its innovation -- not one bad dish hit the bar, unusual for a brand-new restaurant still getting its sea legs (but then, the chefs have been rehearsing for this moment for a while now).
Yung's bread also features prominently; besides that brioche course, she delivered slices of her seeded sourdough rye to the table with butter and buttermilk from Cowbella, an upstate dairy she loves. Yung's baking operation is impressive and evolving; she is working on being able to mill her own flour -- but it's hard for her to get the grains. "I've always loved bread, and I really appreciate bread made with a lot of love, time, patience, and good ingredients," she says. "The ingredients in bread are so few, but most people, unfortunately, don't pay attention to where flour comes from -- or that flour has a flavor. I work with these other grains. It's challenging -- I work as local as possible, support smaller farms, know where it comes from, and have visited these places."
You can get Yung's bread even if you don't want a full meal, by the way -- so long as the seats aren't booked, Yung and Ramirez-Ruiz are happy to have neighbors stop by for just a drink and a snack, like a basket of that freshly baked rye. Eventually, she'd like to bake enough bread to sell a little of it for takeaway, and she'd like to add pastries and coffee in the morning, too.
Right now, Semilla is open Tuesday through Saturday for dinner, though the place stays open until 11:30, about an hour and a half after the last plate is served, for drinks and snacks.
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