Vegetables that Surprise and (Yes) Even Satisfy
I made my first trip into Brooklyn–Williamsburg to specific–in pursuit of what I’d heard was some of the most forward-thinking and satisfying quasi-vegetarian cuisine in the city. It was a tall order given the number of fine dining enclaves now proudly boasting separate tasting menus for the meat averse among us, but, as I slunk into the buzzing 18-seat communal space and took my seat across from a spectral looking Dana Cowin, I knew chef José Ramírez-Ruiz was doing something special here.
Given that all patrons are seated around a u-shaped bar, Semilla is certainly intimate but avoids feeling crowded. A hostess and waitress primarily attend to drinks and clearing platings while Ramírez-Ruiz, pastry chef Pamela Yung, and two cooks take turns presenting and describing dishes. With the staff never afraid to pitch in and help each other as needed, the service remains both warm and highly attentive, especially given that reservations are staggered and only two to four guests will be on a given course at a time.
My meal began promptly with a stone bowl of wonderfully tart, acidic tomato gazpacho balanced with the sweetness of fresh peaches and crunch of rat tail radishes and black olives. It was a generous, refreshing portion, and, midway through my slurping, a cook reappeared with a small roasted tomato filled with corn and topped with glistening shavings of Parmigiano-Reggiano. The shift from cool, sharp gazpacho to warm, comforting tomato, sweet corn, and nutty cheese was magical, allowing me to return to the rest of my soup afterwards with a cleansed and eager palate.
Given the downpour I braved just to make it to the restaurant, the next dish had an extra soulful quality to it: corn chawanmushi with matsutake mushrooms and–believe it or not–ham. The sudden appearance of pork (which went unannounced in the description of the dish) might seem shocking, yet it served a wholly tertiary role in the dish, providing a bit of salt and fat to the warm richness of the corn custard and earthiness of the mushrooms. Hearty and bowl-scrapingly good, the chawanmushi was undoubtedly my favorite dish of the menu and really illustrated how meat can complement and intensify vegetable flavors in the same way the reverse has eternally been done.
Following my favorite dish of the menu, I was, ironically, served my least favorite: roasted eggplant wrapped in pepper leaves with grapes and grape seeds. Though another roasted vegetable, considering the earlier roasted tomato dish, sounded very appealing, the bitterness of the pepper leaves was not helped by the sweetness of the grapes. Additionally, the seeds, while they contributed to a beautiful plating, just seemed superfluous and their crunch an imposition rather than a complement.
Thankfully, the eggplant dish also spelled the arrival of Semilla’s much-acclaimed breadbasket, four hefty slices of Anson Mills grits sourdough served with properly spreadable Cowbella butter and buttermilk from the Catskills. Now, I eat a lot of bread. I’ll make two or three full tours through the bread selection at places like Daniel or Per Se and still feel like there’s some butter-coated crevice of my stomach still screaming out for more. In private, I’ll munch on a baguette from end to end like Bugs Bunny with a carrot. With this in mind, chef Yung’s bread is stellar. It’s not gimmicky, and it doesn’t need to be. It’s warm, crunchy, wholesome, and truly requires no accompaniment (though I’d recommend hanging onto some of it to mop up the remains of the tastier dishes).
My breadgasm was interrupted by the arrival of the next course, which not only featured tomatoes again, but another sneaky touch of protein. Hidden under a tangy foam “dressing,” a salad of tomatoes with cucumbers and scallops. The dish was certainly on the light and refreshing side–perhaps making it better suited for before the eggplant–but nonetheless vibrant with a good bit of sweetness and buttery texture from the raw scallop.
After tomato salad came the tomato tart with a crisp, flaky crust and layers of shiso, the leaves of the beefsteak plant and a relative of mint and basil. No surprises or tricks here, just delightfully fresh, juicy slices of tomato offset by the tart’s texture and the herbaceous backing. The managed to distinguish itself among the three other tomato courses with a pleasant density and layering of flavor.
The final savory course of the evening was appropriately decadent in a way that required no help from any meat element. Tender strips of chicken of the woods mushrooms topped a creamy corn purée that itself sat in a warm Mexican mole sauce so savory and rich that it demanded another half basket of bread just to cherish every drop. Like the preceding tart, Ramírez-Ruiz really hit his stride with a deceivingly simple presentation that gives vegetables the care and respect of a prized piece of protein.
Out of the two desserts on offer, the first and simplest was by far the best: peaches, saffron, and bitter almond foam. The syrupy, sweet slices of peach are almost good enough on their own, but the bitterness of the other two elements is balanced just right make them sing. A tarragon profiterole with wild blueberry sorbet and buttermilk marked the last dish of the evening. Attractively put together, the pastry was refreshing but had more of a palate-cleansing effect for me. I enjoyed the idea but would have been far happier leaving with the taste of those peaches lingering on my tongue.
Overall, at $75, Semilla is a veritable vegetable feast that was almost wholly satisfying. It’s hard to know how exactly the menu will ebb and flow with the seasons, but, if anything, Ramírez-Ruiz and Yung have the imagination and reverence to challenge meat and fish’s hallowed place on our plates.
Date Visited: 9/10/2015