In this week’s review of the “vegetable forward” cooking at Semilla, Wells was pretty glowing, though he conceded that the newish Williamsburg establishment could be a tad niche:
“The crowd reminded me of the audiences, small but intense, who showed up to hear underground bands in the ’80s and ’90s, when that was one of the few ways to hear music that didn’t get played on the radio.”
Here are some other highlights:
Semilla had taken two cabbage leaves, then flattened and dried them until they were as crisp as a cracker. This was the bread. In between were a bundle of unusually delicious coleslaw and some grains of buckwheat groats….The flavors woke up old memories of the Polish and Ukrainian restaurants that are mostly gone from the East Village…
Understand, as you enter this nature preserve, that you will be browsing extensively upon stems, tubers, rhizomes, seeds and other plant parts. Semilla tends to save fish and meat for moments when extra depth or intensity are needed. For instance, a paste of salt cod that covered the bottom of a plate in a thin layer, like gesso on raw canvas, acted like a dip for charred cups of cipollini onion and circles of rutabaga. It’s a dish that draws you in, as much for the rutabaga, which showed off its little-known talent for tasting like three or four vegetables at once, as for the salt cod, distilled to a potent cream so good I ran my fork around the plate twice to make sure I hadn’t left any.
At Semilla (Spanish for seed), the term for this style of cooking is “vegetable forward.” This both warns vegetarians and vegans that they will need to ask in advance for substitutions, and reassures those for whom the term vegetarian cooking still evokes tie-dyed flashbacks of carrot-lentil loaf. Mr. Ramírez-Ruiz, the chief vegetable manipulator, owes almost nothing to that branch of the vegetarian family tree. It’s easier to see the imprint of Per Se, the Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare and Isa, all former employers, in the way he elegantly props one flavor against the next. He makes a frothy soup of beer and grilled celery root, then pours it over “noodles” shaved from a celery root; whipped Cheddar adds tang as it melts into the soup, and puffed quinoa gives it a breakfast-cereal snap, crackle and pop.
There is risk in this kind of cooking. There is reward, too, and the chance to find out how good a rutabaga spring roll can be when you dip it in bittersweet orange juice reduction. Whenever I glanced at the other people huddled around the ash countertop, I saw far more appreciative nods than puzzled grimaces.
160 Havemeyer St., Brooklyn, NY 11211