Chefs throughout the country are taking vegetables to new levels in extraordinary ways. My own recent vegetable-centric journeys include visits to the inventive Vedge in Philadelphia and the impressive Dirt Candy in New York.
Semilla, in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, transports vegetables to such unparalleled heights that I am left breathless from the altitude. The year-old “vegetable-forward” restaurant attracted attention early on. Eater critic Ryan Sutton rated Semilla four stars in his review, Bon Appetit ranked it as one of the best new restaurants of the year, and it recently earned a coveted Michelin star. What makes Semilla such an exhilarating adventure?
Semilla defies categorization. Dishes are mostly vegetarian, but it’s not a vegetarian restaurant. When meat or seafood are incorporated in a dish, it is as an accompaniment to vegetables, rather than the other way around. An $85 tasting menu features the freshest ingredients based on availability from local farmers, and showcases the no-holds-barred innovations of chef/owners Jose Ramírez-Ruiz and Pamela Yung. Menus are not published in advance, so it’s useless to get your heart set on a dish you’ve read about, but food restrictions are accommodated.
The intimacy of the dining experience is another distinguishing characteristic. The long and narrow restaurant accommodates just 18-diners. Seats are spaced out along a U-shaped counter that opens on the far side of the restaurant into a pint-sized kitchen where you can glimpse the chefs working their magic. Servers are eager to connect, but not overwhelm. The seating of guests is timed so that diners are not served all at once. This means that you may be reveling in cream of matsutake soup, while coveting the brussels sprouts after their smoky aroma wafts over from the plate of the diner to your right.
Of course it’s the foraged food at Semilla that is the raison d’être. Each dish takes root from a simple vegetable that is transformed into a complex melange of flavors. Spaghetti squash with tomato and crab is intensified by a delicate foam. A meaty mushroom soup is topped with the most wondeful garlic whipped cream. Pastry chef Yung makes exquisite bread, and while butter isn’t necessary to enhance the flavor, it is a rewarding addition. Desserts lean to the savory side, and are my least favorite aspects of the meal. Still I respect the effort, and they don’t dampen my enthusiasm for the meal.
Chestnut fritter with raspberry vinaigrette
Raw matsutake mushrooms with pumpkin seed ragu and oxtail
Cream of matsutake soup with roasted garlic whipped cream
Spaghetti squash with tomato and crab
Spelt and flaxseed sourdough with Cowbella butter and buttermilk
Chicken of the woods mushrooms with beans and potatoes
Brussels sprouts leaves with honey and dijon
Squash tart with goat cheese
Chestnut ice cream with lavender and black olive
Fig leaf rice pudding with fermented grape granita
Even when a dish doesn’t completely satisfy, the efforts of Chefs Ramírez-Ruiz and Yung can be appreciated and admired, particularly by food enthusaists/thrill seekers. Semilla reaches for the stars. As a restaurant that is built from the ground up, it is already arriving at its destination.
New York Times review by Pete Wells
Eater review by Ryan Sutton