Here’s what you’ll encounter while walking along a stretch of Havemeyer Street just north of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway in Williamsburg: a Spanish meat market, a kebab shack, a MoneyGram wire transfer outlet, an authorized Metro PCS phone dealer, two discount stores without websites, a tattoo parlor, a barber that charges $14 for a haircut, a Pentecostal church, a trio of casually attired gentlemen blasting Latin music from their SUV, and a restaurant called Semilla where a vegetable-heavy tasting for two will run $300 after wine, tax, and tip. If this were the SATs, the question would be "which one doesn’t belong?" But in the increasingly diverse world of fine dining, Pamela Yung and Jose Ramirez-Ruiz’s debut establishment, like a handful of Sichuan peppercorns electrifying an otherwise restrained French sauce, is exactly where it should be, rocking the culinary boat far away from where the suits usually spend their money.
How times have changed. Ever since Momofuku Ko opened in a small, uncomfortable, and stuffy space in Manhattan’s East Village in 2008, the New York-area set menu venue, as an institution, has slowly been distancing itself from its haute inclinations and more spacious environs. What was was once a multi-million dollar mainstay, generally confined to better-heeled parts of town and packed with pricey supplements (or infinite prix fixe options), is now more recognizable in its post-recession iteration: a pared-down, smaller-staffed, single room hangout on the city’s lower-rent fringes. The modern set menu venue is populated by cooks whose names you might not recognize; they didn't rise to chef de cuisine at Per Se or Cafe Boulud before striking out on their own. And the modern set menu venue is frequented by a clientele who’d rather submit to a chef’s vision than pay to subsidize the faux-luxurious safety net known as choice.
Some of these establishments, like Blanca in Bushwick or the Chef's Table in Downtown Brooklyn, are among the city's best and most expensive restaurants. A handful of others like Contra, Thirty Acres, and the back room at Huertas are more affordable neo-bistrots, serving 5-11 course menus for well under $100. And so it goes that the $75 per person Semilla, located in a part of Williamsburg bereft of $300 denim shops, already ranks near the top of either pack. In fact it’s the only new restaurant in quite some time to merit four stars right out of the gate.
The composed cheese course, normally a pre-dessert elsewhere, is the first course at Semilla. The waiter hands you a shot glass. Inside it, a cumulus cloud of hot parmesan foam sits atop an inch-high tranche of cool pear soup. After you sip the heady fromage, the fruit, only vaguely sweet, cleanses away the saltiness, like a bite of pretzel-covered chocolate.
Never has a piece of bluefin tuna infected my culinary daydreams to such a degree as this sandwich
The second course at Semilla is the sandwich course, a preparation of such complexity I didn’t fully grasp its depth until weeks after multiple visits. Ramirez-Ruiz, the head chef, dehydrates two leaves of cabbage. This is your bread. In between goes a drippy mess of slaw. The first time I tried it, the creation was unambiguously delicious and straightforward enough to serve at a football party. Then on visit number two, I noticed the exterior had a gentle citrus tang and a subtle jerky-like chew, with buckwheat groats evoking the earthy kasha dinners I enjoyed as a 20-year-old living in Russia. And during my final meal, I detected yet another layer of flavor, this one the flatulent funk of cabbage, like a dry-aged piece of beef disguised as a vegetable (the chef tells me he brushes the leaves with duck fat, which hikes the up the flavor to NC-17 levels). Never has a piece of bluefin tuna infected my culinary daydreams to such a degree as this sandwich, which is, for lack of a better term, a humble piece of food waste.
It’s all part of the vegetables-seasoned-with-meat style of cuisine that Ramirez-Ruiz developed a reputation for at the Chez Jose pop-ups he used to run with Yung, his partner and pastry chef. Flesh is never the centerpiece of the plate, but rather a garnish, applied like salt or herbs. Take the shallot tart, a mess of sweet roots atop a pastry crust, with a hint of black truffle, a dab of mornay, and an almost invisible slice of lardo. The result is a shockingly delicious, solid-state French onion soup. Or consider the koji-marinated beet tartare, where little dots of foie gras aioli are interspersed throughout, acting as carnivorous capers to these vegetables posing as beef, and adding a whisper of lusciousness to these low-fat environs.
All the action takes place at an 18-seat, U-shaped, ash-wood counter, in a room little bigger than a studio apartment. Think of it this way: Semilla is what Brooklyn Fare would look like if it were folded upon itself like a piece of origami. The space feels taller than it is wide, which perhaps explains all the vertically stored dry goods; you might see chef fetch them by standing atop their workspace like culinary trapeze artists.
The chef prefers to find his luxury in more ephemeral and pedestrian indulgences
Lucky diners, sitting adjacent the kitchen pass, can watch as Ramirez-Ruiz shaves black truffles over a bowl of scrambled eggs and Carolina rice — the lone supplement on the menu ($35) and sadly one that won’t be available now that the season is over. Still, the chef prefers to find his luxury in more ephemeral and pedestrian indulgences, like a salad of tuscan kale, mustard greens, and winter sorrel, all topped with a nutty buttermilk cocoa dressing. The delicate leaves are so packed with sugar it almost tastes as if you’re eating a cotton candy salad finished with melted peanut brittle (but with balance). It’s pretty magical stuff, as is Yung’s fermented ramp butter ("last year’s crop"), essentially a gourmet version of onion dip.
It’s all enough to make you wonder why there aren’t more of these Parisian-style neo-bistrots in New York. They act as an affordable gateway drug to the tasting menu experience; they turn high-end, experimental meals into the every-month luxury they should be rather than the once-a-year-splurge they often are. They are a prima facie financial defense of the long form; you'll spend more on a New York strip and a salad at Minetta Tavern than on a 10-course affair at Semilla.
The neo-bistrot is why you buy the album instead of the single. And as is the case with any album, you won’t enjoy every song at Semilla, so to speak. (A restaurant that’s doing everything right probably isn’t risking enough.) Sunchoke chawanmushi, the custard sublimely perfumed with mushrooms on one visit, is a hint more watery than it should be another night. And that’s alright, because afterward comes sweet kabocha squash dumplings, with a pudding-like texture, inside a lean broth of squash and seaweeds — vegetarian tortellini en brodo.
Yung’s sweets could merit a separate tasting (or restaurant) in their own right. She spins her vanilla ice cream in the Pacojet (a fancy, expensive blender); she tempers it so it has the texture of whipped cream; and she adds on a dose of bergamot granita. There's your Earl Grey tea with milk. Yung finishes off the meal with a savory, fermented oatmeal. The trick is it doesn’t turn sweet until you melt in a scoop of brown butter ice cream on top. There’s your breakfast for dessert.
It’s incredible to think that seven years after Momofuku Ko first opened its doors, practically giving away its tasting for $85, we now have a young spot like Semilla charging ten dollars less. It’s a sign that, despite food inflation or real estate costs, young chefs will find a way to express a singular and unwavering vision of gastronomy for a price that can attract many. If that doesn't make you want to do jumping jacks and cartwheels over the bright future of fine dining in New York, I don't know what will.
Cost: Set menu at $75. When there's space, walk-ins can order a la carte dishes at $8-$14.
Sample dishes: Cabbage sandwich with buckwheat groats, shallot and lardo tart with black truffle, kabocha squash dumplings in broth, sunchoke chawanmushi.
Bonus tip: One-way mirrors in the restroom give diners an intimate peek into the kitchen (not the other way around).