Lentil Cracker with Trout Roe
Ever had reservation regret? You know… when you reserve a Saturday night, prime time table for some hip, new Italian and your date (or you yourself) suddenly declares they’re craving sushi? It’s a lose-lose situation. Stick with what you’ve got and your date’s likely already made up their mind they hate it. New York is a reservation town and last minute, the world is most definitely not your oyster. If you’ve ever tried to snag a last minute table on a weekend, you know what I’m talking about.
Unfortunately, Saturday afternoon rolled around and my husband asked what we were doing for dinner. I replied, “We’re going to a vegetable tasting menu spot in Williamsburg.” There was silence and a blank look on his face, followed by total discontentment. “Vegetables? I’d rather have sushi,” he responded. To which I retorted, “I asked you if you wanted to try Semilla and you said, ‘Sure.’ ” Argh. I scrambled to find a back up plan, but it was already 4 pm when I embarked on an entirely futile search. (Not to mention there is a $75 charge per person for canceling.)
Rutabaga Spring Roll
So off to Brooklyn we went with a terrible outlook on the evening. We arrived at a quaint spot with uber dim lighting and a U-shaped eating counter with just 18 seats. There’s a server station in the middle and a tiny open kitchen at the back. The room itself is stark with no fancy adornments (though the stools thankfully have backs) and there are no tables at all at Semilla. The only menu is a $75 ten-course tasting; it’s a commitment kind of restaurant for foodies or vegetable worshippers. As much as I love vegetables, my meals and cravings evolve around all things fish or meat, but I was willing to give Semilla a chance.
Up until recently, Jose Ramirez-Ruiz, who clocked time at both Per Se and Isa, was running a pop up restaurant called Chez Jose, and a roving one nonetheless. Chez Jose was a two-man show, with Ramirez-Ruiz and his wife Pamela Yung, who worked as a pastry chef at Roberta’s & Isa, doing everything from serving to cooking and refilling water glasses. The two broke ground on a permanent spot back in October and have been generating buzz since.
What’s all the fuss about Semilla? After all, putting vegetables center stage isn’t exactly novel nowadays. What is novel is the chef’s approach. In fact, Ramirez-Ruiz doesn’t forgo fish and meat altogether. Instead, he uses them sparingly to enhance or intensify the flavors and nuances of the vegetables. Take the Steamed Rutabaga with salt cod mousse, shallots and powdered Lovage, for example. The salt cod is a sideshow, albeit a tasty one, there to highlight the soft, sweet rounds of rutabaga. He meditates on rutabaga, utilizing it in another small plate; a crispy and delicious spring roll, sided by an orange-kaffir lime dipping sauce so good I would’ve asked for seconds if the menu had been a la carte.
Alas, our plates disappeared and were quickly replaced with Roasted Beets, showered with sunflower seeds, and plated with a tangy & wonderfully velvety ramp aioli to drag the beets through. Ramirez-Ruiz has a wonderful way of rendering root vegetables — which can often be tough and heavy — delicate and supple. Turnips are braised to the point of lusciousness, and partnered with kale, in a terrifically tasty broth made of whey and parsley oil. He manages to achieve a perfect balance on the plate by marrying the most unlikely of ingredients, like Butternut Squash with fried chickpeas, preserved berries and a lively serrano cream to keep things interesting.
Sourdough & Einkorn Bread
Of course, it’s not just uncommon combinations, but also the unexpected form that many things take, like a chip made out of Lentils, topped with Sunchoke Foam, Sorrel Powder and a briny burst of Trout Roe. Ramirez-Ruiz seems to have a fondness for turning greens — like kale, sorrel and lovage — into powders and using them as condiments as one would use salt. One of my favorite things at Semilla is the Sourdough and Einkorn Bread, intensely crusty on the outside, pillowy and warm within. It’s to die for without butter or olive oil, but the silky butter with buttermilk certainly doesn’t hurt the matter. (They’d be wise to open a bakery!)
The bread is made by the chef’s wife, Pamela Yung, who also dreams up not one, but two desserts on the nightly menu. The night we were in out from the kitchen came a mount of Colza Oil Ice Cream, rich and creamy, crowned with slivers of Meyer Lemon, followed by Satsuma Granita scattered arranged with dollops of Yogurt and a Poppyseed Crumble. Both were simple, yet sublime with sharp citrusy flavors, that always manage to lift your spirits on a cold, winter’s night.
It’s not just the food that makes Semilla so special. It’s also the feeling of intimacy, as if you’re really truly eating in Pam & Jose’s house. Though I don’t want to leave out Amber Karnitz, the resident sommelier, who still has a day job working for Christian Dior Couture. The wine list she curated is small and sweet with some very affordable and interesting options.
The next morning, I was strangely still thinking of the chef’s rutabaga, sunchokes and turnips when Semilla’s menu arrived in my inbox. (And no, I’m not the kind to reminisce about vegetables.) Why didn’t they just print it out the night before so we could follow along at the restaurant? Probably because Ramirez-Ruiz was dreaming it up that afternoon, and tweaking it right up until service, which is part of what makes dinner at Semilla so intriguing. I can’t wait to see what he does with ramps, morels, and fiddlehead ferns comes springtime.