That the Lower East Side restaurant Hemlock would take its name from one of the world’s most infamous deadly plants comes down to a case of mistaken identity. “We thought it was a fennel blossom,” sommelier and partner Zach Ligas says of the botanical illustration that served as the logo for the erstwhile underground supper club he helped run with co-owner Diego Moya, formerly a sous-chef at Casa Mono, Mario Batali’s pocket-size love letter to Spain. When it instead turned out to be the cause of Socrates’ undoing, they abandoned that venture’s moniker, Cure, in favor of Hemlock. From panacea to poison.
As with Moya’s Williamsburg apartment, where the pair spent two years hosting those dinners, their airy Rivington Street dining room boasts a convivial, intimate atmosphere, with blond-wood banquettes lining the galley space and a counter that runs the length of the kitchen. Almost everyone gets a view of Moya’s crew at work as they scatter herbs and dole curious sauces and oils onto the small plates that make up Hemlock’s moderately priced menu. Those facing the other way are likewise treated to an interesting view, this one through wide, vented windows: Hemlock sits across from one of the city’s coolest and most distinctive residential buildings, the former Adath Jeshurun of Jassy synagogue, a circa-1903 edifice with the Ten Commandments engraved above the entrance. Meanwhile, if you find yourself tilting your head back in joy, like I did after my first taste of Hemlock’s thick-crusted sweet-potato bread ($5) swiped through a nutty butter speckled with the tuber’s burnt leaves, you’ll get a glimpse of your own mug courtesy of the ceiling mirrors that were exposed during the restaurant’s nearly year-long renovation.
Moya’s had a busy year, having launched the Upper East Side’s SoCal-ish Blake Lane last November with Suzanna and (Ruby Tuesday founder) Sandy Beall, who in turn helped bankroll this spot, which opened in the middle of April. With its imaginative share plates, focus on natural wine, and eclectic list of beers and ciders, Hemlock bears a number of similarities to Jeremiah Stone and Fabian von Hauske’s super-popular Wildair a few blocks away, though there’s a bit less in the way of culinary acrobatics and more ad-libbing at this laid-back chef’s lair. Considering that Moya, a 34-year-old Long Island native, had never run a kitchen before overseeing these joint projects, it’s something of a feat how hyper-focused and adroitly put together the food is here. Dishes lean vegetarian or pescatarian, changing frequently like edible snapshots of the season.
Typically subdued grassy English peas ($12) practically belt out their presence, backed up by chopped yellow wax beans and boiled peanuts and dressed in an assertive sauce made from pea shell juice blended with minty anise hyssop, the whole jumble strewn with more of that herb as well as Thai basil. Plump cherries ($12), halved and arranged around diced raw turnips, bathe in a sauce made from cherry juice and black pepper, the latter of which plays to the root vegetable’s spiciness. Disks of raw turnip sit on top, drizzled with olive oil, to lend crunch and color contrast, their husks a ghostly white against the crimson pool below. Then there’s the stately study in onion ($9). Petals steamed soft are turned into cups holding chopped green alliums beneath a fog of stiff savory whipped cream tinged gray-black from a dusting of earthy roasted nigella seeds — a deconstructed dip fit for Socrates himself.
Similarly remarkable is the way Moya turns teas into the bases for invigorating chilled soups ($10), including one with green tea, chopped celtuce, and cucumber, and another nestling delicate slivers of Chinese snow melon — already plenty sweet and floral — in a cooling melon-and-chamomile infusion. Seafood small plates, like steamed mussels ($13) under a canopy of sliced raw hakurei turnips and their leaves, and the raw local fluke ($16), cubed and commingled with pickled plums and basil, are just as refreshing. In fact, there’s not a truly heavy dish to be found anywhere on the menu. Even the heartiest compositions aren’t quite full entrées, but it’s hard to complain when facing down crisp-skinned duck breast ($28) boasting barely blushed meat that’s been blasted with dill and garlic scapes, or petite fillets of grilled bluefish ($24) parked next to fresh pea leaves coated in charred pea vinaigrette. Somehow, the most decadent of these larger compositions turns out to be the wedge of white-cabbage kimchi, which balances brine against mint and brown butter.
This capable intuitive improvisation is complemented by a supremely approachable staff, and by Ligas, an Estela and Semilla vet whose nose for unusual bottles yields some extremely fun results, all less than $100. Choices range from Moravian orange wines to local suds like Brooklyn-based Grimm Ales’ sour-fruity Mango Pop! Berliner Weisse, though perhaps the most surprising sips I took during my visits were from a bottle of unfiltered, stone-fruit-forward sparkling wine made by Claverach Farms, a virtuous agricultural compound situated not in the Pyrenees but in Missouri’s Ozark Mountains, not far from St. Louis. The gentle sourness of this increasingly trendy style of cloudy bubbly should find fast fans.
With plenty of viable booze options to explore, you’d do well to end your meal with Moya’s intense cheese plate, featuring rugged shavings of orange clothbound cheddar shot through with blue veins, piled on top of dense smashed dates. The dairy display makes a lofty precursor to Hemlock’s other desserts (all $10): burned oat ice cream with peaches, maybe, or tart rhubarb sorbet gussied up persuasively with diced celery. And since we live in a world where people have taken to snorting chocolate: Regardless of how tempting it might be, I’d urge you not to slam your nose into the Tony Montana–esque mountain of malt powder showered over buttermilk ice and sweet-cream ice cream. Instead, mix it all together into a vision of diners and soda shops past that tastes almost sinful in its tangy, milky richness. While I can’t speak for every deity, you should at least be in the clear with whoever wrote the rules posted across the street.