A tasting menu gives most of us expectations for a special occasion, calling for fancy clothes and fancy attitudes, mystery and adventure in store. As a diner, there is some vulnerability in putting the power of choice into the hands of the chef, requiring a certain degree of trust and respect on both sides. At Semilla, in Williamsburg, Chefs Jose Ramirez-Ruiz and Pam Yung see this intimate form of hospitality on a more comfortable side of the spectrum, as no different than an invitation to dine at their home. Old friends and new sitting together at a table and sharing the meal that their hosts have welcomed them to. No menu or formal attire needed; this is no extravagant and impersonal affair.
Guests trickle into Semilla during the 45 minute window of the first or second seatings of the night, as they might at a dinner party, each arrival punctuated by genuine and emphatic greetings. They begin to fill the eighteen seats at the horseshoe-shaped table that takes up most of the casual, elegantly understated room. The intimacy of one big table encourages conversation with the strangers beside you as you share this special meal, while a runway down the middle of the table gives distance ample enough so you don't feel overcrowded or interrupted from your own experience. This gap also allows the servers or Chef Ramirez himself to walk the length of the table and serve diners on either side, comfortably talking to you face to face, as if you were equals conversing over the same dinner table.
The ever-changing tasting menu at Semilla is what Ramirez and Yung like to call “vegetable-forward.” The vegetables' road to glamour food began with the farm-to-table movement, but while they shared the spotlight with consciously raised meats and fish in that trend, the past year especially has seen them take center stage in newly popular vegetable-focused restaurants. Along with Take Root, Dirt Candy, Narcissa, and others, Semilla is one of the best representations of this cuisine style in NYC. But don't mistake vegetable-centric for vegetarian. Animal and fish products are still prevalent, but simply used sparingly and only to support or enhance the tubers, seeds, legumes, fruits, and vegetables that are the stars of these plates.
After settling into a seat next to the small open kitchen, I was greeted first with a delightful representation of Spring carried in a shooter glass. A layer of warm and supple parmesan foam lazily approached my tongue first, followed by a rush of chilled, vibrant pea soup. The contrast of temperatures and textures made this beginning to the meal one of my favorite offerings of the night. To my delight, the first few courses didn't come with silverware. Radishes were meant to be dragged by eager fingers through a beautifully understated hummus-like seeded foie gras spread. And if I must lick the warm, buttery residue off my hand after devouring my scallion pancake, so be it.
More civilized utensils appeared in time to enjoy tender white asparagus dolloped with roasted garlic puree over Carolina Gold rice. Simple tender mixed greens and nasturtium flowers dressed in a warm herb crème fraiche dressing (the best Ranch dressing you've ever had) gained a depth like I've never tasted in a salad with the addition of black cocoa sprinkled over top. Pristine construction was required as dozens of thinly sliced carrots had been previously laid out in a rectangular stack, rolled, tied, and roasted, then sliced into medallions, and unfurled onto our plates, accompanied by smoked whipped potatoes and a pea shoot broth. The peas, carrots, and potatoes that tend to play second fiddle to a slab of meat in a traditional American household take charge here with a naturally meaty and soul-satisfying quality of their own.
The last two courses were desserts of Chef Yung's creation, the first of my experience bearing a visually stunning resemblance to a sunny-side-up egg. Egg yolk saffron sorbet melded seamlessly with a soft meringue electrified by a tart passion fruit sauce. Following that seductively genius dish was a bright sorrel sorbet with mandarin ice and a cap of lovage cream.
All of the plates at Semilla are restrained in size, and though I didn't leave full to the brim, I was happily and healthily satiated, not left wanting. As with the food, the beverage pairing option to the tasting menu presents it's value in quality, not quantity. The matches were excellent with some exciting finds in the mix, however I believe there may be more advantage to ordering your drinks as you go along from their carefully selected wines, beers, and soft cocktails.
Because of the limited space, Semilla cannot accommodate parties of more than four people and they hold a cancelation policy that requires you to notify them three days in advance of any changes. These guidelines are understandable for a restaurant so small, it just requires you to plan consciously. Reservations are highly recommended, especially as the word of Chef Ramirez's excellent food and hospitality spreads. However, Semilla does accept walk-ins for drinks and a “snacks,” a limited selection of plates from the night's menu that can be ordered a la carte, if there are seats available. If you go this route, don't overlook the bread, which is included in the tasting menu as a tenth course. Made by Chef Yung, the day's bread grains are ground into flour in-house. I was floored by the almost-black crackling crust of our buckwheat sourdough, boasting both course, hearty grains and a gorgeously moist crumb. I was surprised to find it accompanied by a serving of butter and buttermilk. My fascination had been sparked at my first encounter with this combination at Mission Chinese Food last month (though I have to admit, I give Mission my preference for their preparation).
It's easy to look at this vegetable-focused popularity as just the current trend, but progressive-thinking chefs and nutritionists have been challenging the traditional American plate composition for years. Many suggest that instead of having sides with your meat, your animal protein should be a side to your main portions of vegetables and whole grains. It is arguably healthier for our bodies and the environment. And after my dinner at Semilla, I did feel great: invigorated by a balanced meal and a singular experience, warmed by the hospitality that Jose Ramirez and Pam Yung showed me in their home.
160 Havemeyer St. No. 5
Tues – Thurs: 6:00-6:45pm and 8:30-9:15pm seatings
Fri – Sat: 6:00-6:45pm and 8:15-10:30 seatings
9 course tasting menu: $75/person