Other than its very trendy, u-shaped kitchen counter dining area (a trend that I happen to like very much), Semilla, the small, sophisticated new restaurant in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, is unlike any other I have been to. The work of the super team of Jose Ramírez-Ruiz (aka Chez Jose) on savory and Pamela Yung on bread and pastry, Semilla cooks up a style of food that is original, beautiful, a great value¹ and absolutely delicious. Billed as “vegetable-forward” the restaurant is not vegetarian, but animal flesh takes a decidedly back seat here, in stark contrast to the couple’s recent summer work dishing up themed pig roasts.
The room is long, narrow and fairly dark with warm lighting. There isn’t a lot of extraneous space to move around in, but once one is seated and the food and drink start flowing, that becomes a complete non-issue. The bar has a central aisle for service to the lucky few (18) gathered around it. The interior end houses the small, open kitchen where the magic is conjured.
Vegetable cookery has ascended to new heights over the past few decades. For non-vegetarians, they had largely been subservient to meat and have assumed supporting roles, especially within the world of fine-dining. In the United States, perhaps the first truly vegetable-centric restaurant to achieve wide acclaim was Ubuntu in Napa, California under Chef Jeremy Fox and later, Aaron London. Other chefs and restaurants in the US had developed reputations for their serious, vegetable cookery, perhaps most notably, the late Charlie Trotter² and the still thriving Thomas Keller and Daniel Barber, but Trotter’s eponymous restaurant, Keller’s dynamic duo of The French Laundry and Per Se, and Barber’s revolutionary, total-farm, Blue Hill at Stone Barns, still, for the most part, despite the availability of exquisite, finely tuned vegetarian tasting menus, viewed vegetables, as co-featured players alongside animal proteins. These animal proteins, for all intents and purposes, remained the major draw for most diners to these restaurants. One blogger who was at the forefront of noticing and encouraging the march towards focused, high profile vegetable-cookery, was and is, my friend, Chuck, who writes the extremely well-written and thoughtful blog, ChuckEats³ and had championed Ubuntu from their earliest days until it closed. In fact, Chuck and I dined together for the very first time at Ubuntu. It was a wonderfully memorable meal. Through Chuck’s (and others’) influence as a diner and blogger and a legion of chefs, including the likes of Michel Bras, Andoni Luis Aduriz and Rene Redzepi, the cooking of vegetables as primary ingredients for a non-vegetarian dining public has taken off and vegetables have now assumed a more lofty status in the world of fine dining than ever before. Even with that, however, there are precious few non-vegetarian restaurants that require vegetables to be the stars of the table throughout the meal, only using animal proteins as supporting actors. Semilla does just that.
Pam and Jose have traveled extensively, especially in Europe, where throughout Spain, Italy, Belgium, France and Scandinavia, they worked, observed and learned from some of the finest chefs at some of the world’s very best restaurants. Here in the US, they did the same with Ramírez-Ruiz having worked at Per Se and at Isa under Ignacio Mattos, while Yung, who early on in her career, learned from one of the best and most creative in the world of pastry, Sam Mason, did pastry at Roberta’s and at Torrisi Italian Specialties as well as Isa before the two combined to run their Chez Jose pop-up and pig roasts. Their work was impressive enough to have been invited to speak at last year’s Madrid Fusión.
Their international experience was evident in the very bite bite proffered from the kitchen. Arrancini are “little oranges” in Italian, but they also are the name of a popular Southern Italian staple. Especially popular in Sicily,⁴ arrancini are typically made from leftover risotto milanese. The risotto is molded into a ball around some sort of stuffing, commonly a sugo that may include peas or even some mozzarella. These balls are then fried to leave a nice crisp crust with a soft, oozing and delicious interior. Semilla’s arrancino was a rice ball with a crisp-fried crust, but that’s where the similarity to the classic Southern Italian arrancino ended. Theirs was more of an Italian-Japanese hybrid utilizing burdock as a central component to the rice ball and miso to flavor an accompanying aioli. As one who grew up eating and loving arrancini, it had the familiar, comforting texture I had known and loved, but paired with novel, creative flavors. The arrancino was well executed and delightful.
Semilla serves beer and wine, but no cocktails. I started with a wine that is essentially a cocktail – Vermouth. Specifically, they had Vervino Var. No. 4, one of the Vermouths made by Channing Daughters Winery on the eastern end of Long Island. The wine is Sauvignon Blanc based, fortified with brandy, aromatized with botanicals and lightly sweetened with honey. It was a delicious accompaniment to the early part of my meal.
Potatoes are humble ingredients that are not difficult to make delicious or even transcendent such as in the famous Joel Robuchon Pommes Purees, but most of those ways involve significant additions of transformative ingredients like cream, butter, cheese, etc., though it is also true that a simple baked potato can be superb. What is difficult nowadays, though, is to make a dish of potatoes that stand out, especially when the potatoes are left essentially to themselves with minimal, but key manipulation. Semilla’s fingerling potatoes roasted in a bed of caraway salt and served with a dipping sauce of house-made crême fraiche with nasturtium oil impressed. The potatoes had picked up enough caraway flavor to be interesting, but not so much to take over the dish. The texture and seasoning were creamy and spot-on and the creamy dipping sauce a lovely, flowery accent. The potatoes remained potatoes, but had enough accent to take them to another level.
Even more impressive is what Ramírez-Ruiz did with rutabagas, in not one, but two different dishes. The first, pictured above, was a study in harmony and balance with each ingredient contributing to the overall flavor and textures of the dish while also retaining individual personality. This was one of two dishes on the evening in which animal protein played a noticeable role. Here salted cod had been spread along the bottom of the plate to provide elements of salt, umami and creaminess. The whole dish, however, was brought together by the sweet acidity of Meyer lemon.
Rutabagas were again paired with citrus in the following dish, but the two dishes couldn’t have been more different in terms of preparation and presentation. In this, a rutabaga farce was stuffed inside of a phyllo dough cigar, fried and finished in the oven. This taquito-like bite was then dipped in the orange reduction that also featured Thai lime. Like the other rutabaga dish, this one too, achieved great balance brought together by the citrus, but also with a touch of heat on the finish. Delicate and crunchy, the textures were superb as well.
The following dish was the first of the evening that was not truly transformative. It was good, a very nice beet dish beautifully presented, but not really more than that despite some of its more interesting components, which failed to stand out or complement the dish in any truly discernible way.
Turnips are not typically a root vegetable that I would seek out, but with this dish showcasing gold ball turnips, Ramírez-Ruiz was fully back on track. More Nordic in nature than some of the other dishes served previously, this one relied less on acid and more on pure savoriness. The collards were a great touch to add depth to the turnips.
Pam Yung’s Einkorn bread has received a lot of press recently and most deservedly so. Bread simply does not get better than this. A delicious crisp crust and pillowy crumb, all still on the hot side of warm, would have been enough in itself to recommend the bread, but the depth and quality of the outstanding flavor in each and every bite was truly exceptional. The bread begged no adornment, but the butter and buttermilk served alongside was too good to ignore. Together, the combination was irresistible to this now typically carb-averse diner, so much so, that I included this bread on my list of the Top 15 Most Transcendent Dishes of 2014. It was that great!⁵
Making pasta from vegetables isn’t new, but Ramírez-Ruiz made another transformative dish, this time centered around celeriac. He made tagliatelle out of the root, mixed it with cheddar cheese and puffed quinoa and poured a soup of grilled celeriac and beer into the bowl. While not my favorite dish of the evening, it was still quite tasty and enjoyable.
The final savory course was truly extraordinary and had the bread been just a touch more ordinary this would have made my Best Dishes List from 2014. A disc of butternut squash had been grilled like a steak and covered with a Wonderland-inspired array of non-intuitive items like pickled blueberries, kohlrabi and chickpeas. Further adding to the brilliant absurdity of the dish was a crema made from Serrano ham! As odd as the description sounds, the result was totally fantastic! The flavor balance, anchored by the delicious umami of the serrano cream (the only truly flavor-forward meat component of the evening), was totally marvelous with each bite unearthing something new and divine. I’m not really sure where the inspiration for this bit of culinary prestidigitation came from, but it must have been inspired by Houdini himself.
My seat next to the kitchen allowed me some great views of Chef Jose Ramírez-Ruiz working, but not so much of his partner, Pam Yung, whose back was mostly to the bar while she was plying her trade. The exception to that view was, interestingly enough, from the small bathroom located on the other side of the bar with a one way window directly overlooking Pam’s work space. It gave a whole new meaning to voyeurism.
Pam Yung put her time and space to excellent use. The bread was the first product clearly of her making that I received during the meal, but it wasn’t the last. There are not many pastry chefs out there who rival Pam when it comes to making desserts that are interesting, beautiful and delicious in a sophisticated, adult way. Her desserts, while sweet, are never too sweet. She always incorporates a complex balance along with unusual, delicious flavors and well executed textural components. The first dessert of the evening was a visually arresting combination of fermented grape sorbet with kombu (!) cream and malt. The sugar was assuaged by a lovely tartness, while the kombu added a distinct sense of umami and the malt a delightful crunch.
The last dish of the evening was another dessert, but I was given a taste of an unusual and funky, but delicious dessert wine from the Sonoma Coast of California. Saint Marigold 2007 is a Chardonnay unlike any other Chardonnay that I’ve ever had. A one-off project from Salinia Winery, it is slightly oxidated, dry but with some wonderfully funky flavor characteristics. It was a perfect wine to finish the meal with, as unique and special as the meal itself.
Pam’s final dessert was a Quince custard with pickled quince and Thai lime. Along with the wine, this was a marvelous dish with which to finish this extraordinary meal at this extraordinary little restaurant. While comfortable, warm and inviting, this is not a restaurant to come to for comfort food. That is not to say that the food isn’t good, doesn’t make sense or makes one feel uncomfortable. Instead, this is a place to come to, to reset expectations, whether they are expectations of what vegetables can be, how they can focus a meal, how they can work with animal elements in a way that those animal elements are supporting background notes and not the reverse, and even how such typically mundane things as bread, potatoes, rutabagas and even wine can shine in fabulous, unexpected ways. There are wonderful seeds of creativity that have taken hold at Semilla.
¹At $75pp for a set menu, the dinner won’t be considered “a great value” by people who don’t look beyond the cost of the ingredients, which by and large, are not luxe at Semilla. It IS a great value, though, for diners looking for delicious, original cooking at a reasonable price. Is a great painting valued by the cost of its canvas and paint?
²Nobody was more influential in the United States than Charlie Trotter in bringing vegetable cookery front and center in the realm of fine dining than Charlie Trotter, who, along with the late Jean-Louis Palladin were instrumental to the success of The Chef’s Garden in Ohio, which initially through their and subsequently other chefs’ patronage and guidance, has become the premiere commercial farm for developing, growing and selling the most interesting and highest quality vegetables on the market.
³I have borrowed this conceit of footnotes from Chuck’s blog, which uses them extremely effectively and with great erudition. I consider it particularly fitting to use them in this post.
⁴Pam spent time in Sicily working with the pastry master, Corrado Assenza. I was happy to see what I take as some influence from that time on the menu, even if the net result was not very Sicilian.
⁵I enjoyed some excellent breads in 2014. While Pam’s was the most sensational, special mention must go to the very talented young chef, Max Mackinnon, who only 6 months into baking bread, baked some for my family and I at a private dinner in Burlington, VT, that was not far behind Pam’s and the bread I had baked by The Bread Lab at the recent StarChefs ICC during the Dan Barber presentation. While I enjoyed other great breads during the year, I ate bread sparingly and only when it was extraordinary. These three were worth dealing with each and every carb they contained.