Prandially Yours: Semilla
-A Monthly Column By Joshua Wanger, Featuring NYC Restaurant Reviews-
Diners rarely expect to find an affordable tasting menu anywhere in New York City, especially in the hip and buzzing neighborhood of Williamsburg. The notion of a tasting menu hails back to the 1990s when master chefs Ferran Adrià and Thomas Keller began offering bite-sized selections at their restaurants, El Bulli and French Laundry, respectively. Instead of the typical appetizer–entrée–dessert chosen by the patron, tasting menus leave all the work of deciding what to eat to the chefs. Chefs Adrià and Keller offered 40-or-more–course tasting menus spanning entire evenings. This was not your typical night out.
Tasting menus are now readily available in any major city, allowing average diners to experience a wide array of foods curated to showcase the talents of the chefs. At Semilla, Chef José Ramírez-Ruiz regularly designs new, vegetable-forward tasting menus, serving up to 18 diners gathered in the small space. There is no printed menu, so each plate is a surprise (unless you happen to sneak a peek at your neighbor’s dish). Several knowledgeable and friendly servers present about ten courses ($85 per person) and a 6-course wine tasting ($60 per person).
On this occasion, a BBQ sunchoke bun with tomato and sesame vinaigrette begins the meal. Served in a bamboo basket, the steamed bun provides a tender and delightful shell for the rich umami of the sunchokes. The tomato and sesame vinaigrette rounds out the flavor, coating the mouth. Following closely behind is a butternut squash with pickled quince and foie gras. The presentation is everything: The thinly sliced vegetable ribbons come folded delicately with the pickled quince and foie gras, creating a crunchy texture and rich, sweet, and slightly tangy flavor.
Two of six uncommon beverages accompany the first courses: an American sour called Purple Prose from Grimm Artisanal Ales and a French 2012 sciaccarello called Damianu from Domaine U Stiliccionu. The sour is produced with aged noble hops, ripe red fruit, and white oak. The drink is incredibly refreshing, clean, and fruity, but the aged qualities offer subtle complexities hinting at the meal to come. Like all the wines served at Semilla, the Damianu is a natural wine, meaning it did not have any chemical or mechanical intervention during production. This bright and fruity tasting wine wields a spicy scent and is nicely paired with the rich foie gras dish.
The next two courses are served concurrently: spaghetti squash with crab and espelette pepper, alongside polenta sourdough bread with Cowbella butter and buttermilk. Remarkably fresh tasting, the crab and spaghetti squash play beautifully with the pepper. The bread arrives tender and fresh, the butter and buttermilk blending to create a wonderfully comfortable course. Space savory bites out with sips from another French wine: a 2013 Clos Cibonne Tibouren rosé. This vibrant rosé has a pleasant taste with a hint of salinity.
Next up, a homey array of wild hen of the woods mushrooms with potatoes and beans. Dripping with earthy flavor, this foraged dish is a prime example of simple, hearty composition. To drink: a 2014 Trousseau by Michel Gahier called La Vigne de Fort.
The final course before the main entrée arrives: Brussels sprouts leaves with mustard. The mustard made with pig fat, pairs excellently with the leaves in this atypical dish. Accompanying was a 2013 Chardonnay from Derain called Saint-Aubin en Vesvau.
At last the main entrée arrives. A turnip en brioche with truffle “jus” is presented, hot from the oven, with a fresh salad. Still firm, the turnip provides a satisfying, savory pair to its smoky brioche shell. Served aside a stunning 2009 gros manseng from Domaine Haut Campagnau called Le Ruminant des Vignes, this dish is an excellent crux for this adventurous meal. The incredible server encourages diners sipping the newly opened bottle of Le Ruminant des Vignes to let it rest and aerate the glass: The flavor undergoes dramatic shifts, giving diners a chance to experience an amazing wine as it blooms.
Finally, two desserts conclude this memorable and exciting dinner: a chestnut mousse with lavender and olive oil, served alongside a fig leaf rice pudding with fermented grape granita. Both desserts excellently combine flavors in unexpected ways. The chestnut mousse has a toasted nutty flavor and blends nicely with the floral oil tones. The al dente rice pudding is irresistible and not for sharing! The creamy sweetness of the rice and the tartness of the granita compels diners to devour their portions post haste.
The chefs and service staff of Semilla have created a truly magnificent experience, absolutely deserving of the Michelin star it received this year. In a city known for some of the most expensive menus in the world, Semilla proves that it is possible to provide a fine-dining experience average diners can afford. Make a reservation online via the Semilla website.
Post Photo Courtesy of freewilliamsburg.com