From time to time, The New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells strays from his home base on the island of Manhattan and journeys to the outer boroughs to test the menus in places like Flushing, Queens and Red Hook, Brooklyn. This week, he gave his readers a peek into Semilla in Williamsburg, and awarded the restaurant two stars while he was at it.
As we’ve discussed before, Wells does not usually enjoy his food delivered with a lot of pomp and circumstance, and is often quick to sniff out anything too gimmicky and put the kibosh on it in his column. Therefore, this avid reader found it a little surprising that he enjoyed chef José Ramírez-Ruiz’s crafted dining experience as much as he did, as there are a lot of — shall we say — peculiars to the dining experience there. First, as Wells explains, “Diners at Semilla don’t see a list of the 10 or so courses for which they are being charged $75 until the next day, when an email arrives from the restaurant.” Then, there’s “the horseshoe-shaped counter around which Semilla’s 18 seats are arranged”; add on the fact that it’s a self-proclaimed “vegetable-forward” concept, and all signs point to the publishing of a disgruntled review from an unimpressed restaurant critic.
However, the opposite was true. Perhaps our poor Wells is searching for an escape from his culinary boredom. He alludes to this possibility by explaining how the perils of running a profitable restaurant in this city can lead chefs to abandon creativity. The pressure to give the masses what they want and clear them out quickly may be obvious to some, but “it’s less obvious how those pressures may influence menus until we stop to ask why so many are virtually identical … If not for minor variations in sauces and side dishes, we’d all fall asleep after our first cocktail.”
Best to leave your pillow at home if you visit Semilla, however, as Ramírez-Ruiz and pastry chef Pamela Yung march to the beat of not oft-played tunes. Both formerly of Isa, they use “the nature-preserve possibilities of the tasting menu so their customers can taste dishes that weren’t concocted to please the marketplace.” Wells can’t recommend any of the dishes, since each and every night only the “Chef’s Choice” is available, but he takes the time to detail a sort of cabbage sandwich; a beer and celery root soup; and Yung’s “hot sourdough bread that shows up at about halftime and often incorporates whole grains, such as farro and einkorn, that she grinds in a countertop mill stored on a shelf above the kitchen pass.”
Wells didn’t love everything that was put in front of him — and he didn’t expect to, as was made clear by the first word of his description of the dishes that didn’t please his palate. “Inevitably,” he begins, “I wished a few dishes at Semilla had been swatted to the floor by the market’s invisible hand. One was a plate that I’ve come to call ‘too much cabbage with too many soybeans.’ Another was an ice cream Ms. Yung made out of colza oil. Colza oil is a close cousin of canola oil; frozen, it tastes like cold lubricant.” This young gastronome isn’t exactly sure what cold lubricant tastes like, but she’s more than willing to take the venerable critic’s word for it. Despite these few strikes, Wells was happy Semilla was able to keep him awake, saying: “There is risk in this kind of cooking. There is reward, too.”