Like so many ambitious restaurants today, it began as a pop-up. Chez Jose was the brainchild of Jose Ramirez-Ruiz and Pamela Yung, who started out in a coffee shop down the street and then moved their temporary restaurant to the current space on Havemeyer, a skillet's throw from the Williamsburg Bridge exit lane. Now the name has been changed to Semilla ("Seed") and the place radiates permanence. While the pop-up preserved the fried-fish accoutrements of the former Lake Trout space, now the premises has been handsomely remade, featuring 18 stools along a horseshoe-shaped counter engulfed in a soft light. Half of the small kitchen remains visible at the open end of the counter, where two or three cooks bustle around, entering and exiting like actors in a play. The restaurants' main offering — apart from a handful of snacks — is a 10-course tasting menu ($75) that was entirely vegetarian when a friend and I recently visited.
Lots of places claim to be local and seasonal, but how many really deliver on the "seasonal" part? As our meal progressed, we ate lots of roots and rhizomes, lots of nuts and grains, and lots of late-season fruit and yogurt, and almost nothing you wouldn't find in a farmers' wagon this time of the year. That's unusual in a modern restaurant, where chefs depend upon raiding the greenhouses that now produce heirloom tomatoes, baby vegetables, and fancy lettuces all winter ‘round. At Semilla our meal was mainly shades of brown, and tasted powerfully of the earth. Hello autumn, here comes winter! Following are some tasting notes.
Course 1 — On a tree-trunk cross-section arrived a pair of arancini, the only nod to Italian cooking during the meal. The rice balls were deep fried and shot with burdock, which proved nearly indistinguishable from plainish ground beef. Burdock turned out to be a much better meat substitute than TVP!
Course 2 — This course swerved in a Mexican direction, with the kind of charred scallions one sometimes finds in taquerias, accompanied by a red-pepper coulis for dipping, constituting two of the meal's brightest splashes of color.
Course 3 — The most brilliant course so far took slices of sweet charred onion and matched them with flat leaf parsley and frozen globs of milk, which made it look and taste like we'd just discovered food under a blanket of snow. Matched with the onion's sweetness, herb oil made the dish burst with flavor.
Course 4 — One of the meal's most doctrinaire autumn courses featured pumpkin soup extended with green tomato ensconced in a small pumpkin under a lid. Delightful! Raw grated broccoli provided crunch and there was some sort of foam on top, too.
Course 5 — Another high point of the meal was a dish of braised celery root with yogurt, pistachio, and some charred spices - a careful charring of ingredients was used to ramp up the flavor at several junctures in the meal.
Course 6 — At this mid-point of the tasting menul, Pamela Yung's amazing sourdough bread was trundled out in a box with sweet butter and buttermilk. It was still warm, with the crust a crackling contrast to the sweet-and-sour flesh of the bread. Utterly enjoyable, in the most fundamental of ways.
Course 7 — Shaved sunchokes covered this heap of roasted oyster mushrooms, with the unusual addition of charred pear for sweetness and autumnal flavor. And there was a garnish of tiny pickled cauliflower florets, too.
Course 8 — This was the ostensible main course of the meal, starting with a huge daikon radish braised brownish-red that the chef showed us before whisking it back to the kitchen, covering it in brioche, and baking it. One thick slice per person was then engulfed in a pale onion gravy. A delicious dish that doesn't look like much in its photograph.
Course 9 — Quince, smoked mint, and doctored mascarpone formed the basis of this small dish, which seemed intended to sweep us into the dessert course.
Course 10 — In some ways, this was the most spectacular presentation of the evenings, a thick coin of ice cream flavored with fig leaves, embedded with a fresh fig slice, and gobbed with green oil, so cool on the tongue and tasty!
Semilla, 160 Havemeyer Street, Brooklyn; 718-782-3474. semillabk.com/