Chef José Ramírez-Ruiz and pastry chef Pam Yung of Semilla. Photo: Olivia Boddie
Chef José Ramírez-Ruiz and his girlfriend, pastry chef Pam Yung, were tired of cooking other people’s food. After working for years in kitchens such as Brooklyn Fare, Per Se, Isa, Degustation (him), and Roberta’s, Tailor, Room 4 Dessert (her), the longtime couple finally decided to give up a steady paycheck to do their own thing.
In 2012, they collaborated on Chez José, a BYOB popup serving creative, evolving, mostly veggie prix fixe dinners. The concept, creativity, and food were all theirs, and it was beloved by local diners and many reviewers. But the space, a by-day breakfast/taco joint in Williamsburg, was tiny—only 4-8 diners a seating. They needed a staff, a prep area, a liquor license and comfy seats.
Then Lake Trout, the Baltimore-style restaurant which served those amazing fried fish sandwiches, was forced to shut down and its owner Joe Carroll suggested José and Pam use the Havemeyer St. spot for Chez José dinners. After several months of success, Joe was interested in solidifying the partnership.
“We had a series of conversations during the fall/winter of 2013 and it just seemed like the right progression,” said Ramírez-Ruiz. Late last year he and Yung, with Carroll’s help, opened Semilla, which they consider a continuation of the spirit and philosophy behind the now-closed Chez José.
After an extensive renovation, Semilla is now a beautiful, minimalist restaurant that isn’t exactly big but is brilliantly designed to maximize space and function. Eighteen diners can sit around a blonde-wood U-shaped table for the daily changing “vegetable-forward” $75 tasting menu, which includes about 10 small inventive, rustic dishes. Past menus have featured burdock arancini with miso sauce and house-dried pepper; beets with fermented ramps, sunflower seeds and hay yogurt. Dessert might be fig leaf ice cream with buckwheat crumbs and a fermented grape granita.
The carefully curated beer and wine list features many lesser-known bottles, like a series of “complete” wines (which are briefly touched by the grape skin), some unusual sherries and top-notch dry ciders. There are two seatings every night, around 6ish and 8ish, and the restaurant smartly staggers the reservations—6:15, 6:30 etc.— so not everyone arrives or eats at once.
In the middle of the horseshoe table, the fantastically knowledgeable and approachable servers, as well as José and Pam from time to time, serve, clear, replace silverware, answer questions and suggest wines in a graceful, seamless dance. (Our server offered us a taste of a wine that had been previously opened, and one from a new bottle of the same wine, to compare the results of its aging.)
Despite their motion and proximity, the dining experience feels quiet and private. The courses are perfectly timed and spaced so that you are rarely eating the same thing as your neighbor, but may peak at what’s next. (Otherwise, the menu is a complete mystery; “José never writes anything down!” Pam said when I asked her for one.)
Plus the small kitchen only accommodates a few burners, an oven and one sous chef, so José must rely on skills he likely learned at Chez José —preparing and organizing many small components so each dish is ready to fire at multiple times during the evening.
Our recent dinner was a series of earthy, uniquely textured but unpretentious dishes, like a lentil cracker with creamy parsnip and trout roe; a flakey sandwich made with slaw and buckwheat groats between two dehydrated cabbage leaves; ribbons of cooked beets enveloping morsels of velvety beef in a marrow-rich foam. Perhaps the most delicious event of the meal was Pam’s rich blue barley and flaxseed sourdough bread with fresh butter and sour buttermilk. In fact, some diners were there only for this bread, and maybe a couple glasses of wine. It’s that good.
It’s an impressive and passionate operation—every night is a different menu of creative and complex dishes that are constantly evolving as the chefs tweak, edit and invent. Even the bathroom has a twist—a one-way mirrored window that looks into the efficient kitchen.
Amidst all this hard work, Chef José found some time to chat. (more…)
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