No. 5, 160 Havemeyer Street, Williamsburg
$75 can seem an awfully steep price to pay for a meal comprised almost entirely of vegetables; especially if you shop, as we often do, at Chinese supermarkets and are used to spending $2.49 for a bundle of oyster mushrooms and 99 cents for three pounds of bok choy. But when’s the last time you patterned your produce aisle stash into translucent strands of celery tagliatelle or buoyant orbs of burdock arancini slicked with nutty miso?
Those are just a few of the culinary magic tricks currently being performed at Semilla in Williamsburg, the now permanent, 18-seat tasting room that once served as testing ground for the well-received pop-up, Chez José, from Isa vets José Ramírez-Ruiz and Pam Yung. Perhaps the most startling transformation—if you remember its original iteration as Joe Carroll’s cheese-fish-sandwich-serving Lake Trout—is the space, which was once resolutely, unapologetically hideous (outfitted with orange plastic bucket seats and tacky wood paneled walls), and is now a zen temple of gastronomy, boasting a serene, putty-colored paint job, and dominated by a sleek, Japanese-esque, horseshoe-shaped dining counter. So we were actually shocked to find ourselves longing for Lake Trout’s grungy, graffiti’d bathroom, tagged with unprintable slang — the modern water closet at Semilla has a waist-high glass window peering directly into the kitchen! Whether or not the staff can actually see you is of little consequence; there’s something just a wee bit off-putting about having a chefs table in the shitter (Lake Trout’s term, of course, not ours).
It was enough to make us wish we had ordered a bit less wine, although a selection of esoteric whites proves the perfect complement to Semilla’s unique, ever-changing progression of nuanced, veggie-forward dishes. The most recognizable course was a pumpkin soup flavored with coins of green tomato and flecks of grated romanesco, but few of the dishes hinge on established recipes, or even take inspiration from any particular region or cuisine. There’s griddled baby leeks, meant for dragging in a puddle of red pepper coulis; wrinkled fingerling potatoes, buried and baked in a crust of gray salt; scarlet curls of beet-wrapped beets, flavored with sunflower seeds and musky fermented ramps; and a duo of desserts courtesy of Yung—including a bed of buckwheat topped with a satiny puck of fig leaf ice cream—which made us wish we had made cleverer use of the now barren tree in our backyard.
“A flank steak will always be a flank steak, no matter how you sear it,” offers Ramírez-Ruiz, which goes to show why all-vegetable menus have gained such traction amongst creatively minded chefs. Because when it comes to the totally uncategorizable, seriously inventive, and often exhilarating fare at Semilla, nothing is ever as it seems.