Cultured Counter: Semilla's Vegetable-Centric Tasting Menu Disarms and Charms
Bradley Hawks for the Village Voice
Joe Carroll has spent the past decade colonizing Williamsburg with neighborhood establishments: beer utopia Spuyten Duyvil, petit nouveau steakhouse St. Anselm, hipster barbecue shack Fette Sau. Last year he invited José Ramírez-Ruiz and Pamela Yung to transform their popular weekly prix-fixe pop-up, Chez José, into a regular-hours restaurant. For the past year they'd been operating inside the space left behind by Carroll's short-lived fried-fish joint, Lake Trout. They gutted the place and installed an eighteen-seat ash-wood counter that looks gorgeous under the soft glow of globe lamps.
Carroll's been drawing throngs with boisterous restaurants for years, but Semilla (160 Havemeyer Street, 718-782-3474) — the name is Spanish for "seed" — is a different animal, his coziest venture yet. Thanks to the unwavering dedication of its creators, dining here is a deeply intimate experience. (Speaking of intimate experiences, a cheeky design move gives bathroom-goers a view of the kitchen through two narrow two-way mirrors. I'm all in favor of open kitchens, but watching a chef tweeze herbs onto your entrée while using the restroom takes cognitive dissonance to a new level.)
They're not the prettiest stick-shaped snacks I've ever crammed into my maw, but I'll have a hard time forgetting crisp rutabaga spring rolls: the roasted root vegetable rendered velvety soft, almost meaty; a translucent glaze, shimmering nearby in its miniature saucer, that tastes of intensely expressed orange oils. To dip the roll into the citrus reduction and take a bite is to reel from this vivid rendering of winter, of peak citrus mingling with ground-grown vegetable. It pairs exceptionally well with a glass of Twenty Five Reasons, a skin-fermented sparkling sauvignon blanc from Mendocino County, as did the taste that preceded it — four tiny fingerling potatoes, served in the salt in which they were roasted alongside crème fraîche surrounded by a moat of bright green nasturtium oil. The wine was part of a pairing, five or so pours for $45 (the price of Chez José's very first dinner).
Perhaps because they're a couple and have been cooking together for years, Yung and Ramírez-Ruiz hit the ground running with Semilla. The $75 tasting of ten courses or so moves along at a steady tempo, aided by sommelier and manager Amber Karnitz, who impressively orchestrates Carroll's list of craft beers, ciders, and wines, which emphasizes sustainability-minded producers. After the chef poured grayish-brown beer soup over twisty ribbons of grilled celeriac next to cheddar cheese cream, Karnitz stepped in with two glasses and a story: Ramírez-Ruiz makes the soup with Evil Twin Brewing Company's Turkish Delight, a coffee-cardamom beer, and — when partaking of his own creation — likes to drink some of the brew to complement the dish. Karnitz, on the other hand, favors a glass of Strasser Weinberge grüner veltliner from Arndorfer, an indie Austrian winery. I was tasked with choosing a favorite (Karnitz #FTW). The interaction felt personal and very much in keeping with the chefs' ethos of presenting cooking as a self-reflection. The lack of a printed menu adds a pleasant element of surprise to the experience.
Produce is the star of the show, and so the kitchen doesn't shy away from playful presentations. Pumpkin soup came served in a hollowed-out gourd, and juicy satsuma oranges dotted whipped cream in an abstract diorama littered with poppy seeds. Yung's desserts ease you down from Ramírez-Ruiz's bold flavors, as when the tingle from a spicy plate of roasted squash sitting in serrano pepper sauce with blueberries, fried chickpeas, and raw kohlrabi dissipates right around the time a dish of white grapefruit segments nestled into a puff of aerated yogurt and bolstered by pine nuts and tarragon hits the table. On a previous visit Yung flavored ice cream with fig leaves and set the frozen disk over a grape-buckwheat crumble. She's also the reason folks around town can't shut up about Semilla's bread service: five slices of bulky einkorn-buckwheat sourdough. Complex and malty, a flawless foil for soft butter dashed with salted buttermilk.
Three years ago Chez José was born inside a Williamsburg coffee shop as a weekly side gig where Yung and Ramírez-Ruiz could express themselves apart from their day jobs. They were working under Ignacio Mattos at Taavo Somer's newly hatched Isa — Ramírez-Ruiz as sous chef, Yung on pastry — when Somer abruptly changed course and replaced the core of his kitchen crew. That clean sweep wound up having a profound effect on the industry, producing two of the city's most promising recent restaurant debuts: Mattos's rising star, Estela; and now the sprouting Semilla. (Make it three, if the Somer Venn diagram takes in Isa's first sous chef, Jeremiah Stone, who now partners with Fabian von Hauske at Contra.)
Among its growing group of satisfied customers, Estela can already count Barack and Michelle Obama. Now the forward-thinking FLOTUS ought to visit Semilla's tasting counter — it might just inspire her to install a U-shaped bar in one of the White House's vegetable-garden greenhouses.
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