There’s a classic interviewing brain teaser that goes, “Why are pot hole covers round and not square,” and you’re supposed to demonstrate your on-the-spot creativity by coming up with as many logical reasons as possible. I felt like I was watching this type of ingenuity unfold when I had the tasting dinner at the vegetable-driven restaurant Semilla in Williamsburg.
Semilla’s ingredients are based on what’s seasonal and what’s available, and on the night we happened to be there, it seemed to be a lot of tomatoes. However, the repeat showings of tomato were not tedious or disappointing, because Semilla managed to extract all sorts of different qualities and flavors from the tomato. Sweet and acidic in a cold gazpacho? Check. Roasted and juicy? Done. Cooked in a tart with shiso like a Japanese pizza? Yes, please. This tomato has a lot of layers.
It’s important to note that Semilla is vegetable-driven and not purely vegetarian. They do incorporate meat and seafood in their courses, but the proteins are very much on the sidelines. Some have complained that the tasting menu left them hungry, but that was very much not my experience. Having a bowl of smoky, hearty chicken of the woods risotto will fill you up, and the amazing house sourdough bread will take up even more room, as you take multiple slices and slather on the buttermilk butter.
The restaurant attracts a cerebral food-minded crowd. You could tell that people here were really thinking about what they were eating, but not in an obnoxious sort of way. The atmosphere is relaxed and casually elegant, and the counter seating maintains that informal vibe, despite the serious food that’s coming out of the kitchen. The staff is friendly and not standoffish in that Brooklyn hipster sort of way, and they are more than happy to answer any questions that you have about the menu. One conversation you’re sure to engage in is with your food. Sometimes it can be puzzling, other times it can be thought-provoking, but for the most part it is very enjoyable.
No. 5, 160 Havemeyer St (between S 2nd and S 3rd St)
Brooklyn, NY 11211 (718) 782-3474 Two seatings daily from Tues-Sat
Everyone associates Williamsburg with bustling Bedford Ave, but if you take the L train farther east to Morgan Ave, you’ll find yourself in a remote industrial wasteland far removed from the comforts of Smorgasburg and Radegast. I found myself walking down this desolate stretch on a cold winter’s day, and I started feeling anxious by the empty streets, because if someone were to jump out from behind one of these abandoned warehouses, there would literally be no one to witness my screams.
I walked a little more quickly, until I finally found myself at Fitzcarraldo, a warm oasis in the middle of all these ugly, gritty buildings. It’s sort of magical stepping in here because it’s so unexpected to find this charming space with a bar and an open kitchen inside. The vibe is pretty casual in typical Brooklyn fashion–the chefs looked like they were dressed for a low-key house party, and the clientele was a mix of people in their late 20s to early 40s. It was comfortable and unpretentious, and thankfully lacking in that aloof, lackadaisical attitude that seems to plague the hipster Brooklyn restaurants.
The food here is described as Northern Italian, specifically of Liguria, a coastal region in the Northwest. The mild region is ideal for growing simple produce, and it’s known for its vegetables, olives and grapes. It’s also the birthplace of pesto, that ubiquitous green basil garlic sauce that we’ve come to love. Of course, the proximity to the ocean means more emphasis on seafood and less so on meat. Despite the Ligurian association, I felt like the food had this hard to define ambiguity about it. It was Italian, but also Asian at times, and then American. It’s very much a reflection of this current globetrotting trend in food, where the easy worldwide exchange of cooking ideas results in an absorption of everything so that regional definitions become less clear cut.
Ligurian, Ligurian/Asian, whatever the case, the definition might be hard to pin down, but the flavors are undeniably delicious. We opted for the tasting menu, a steal at $45 a person, and I was immediately blown away by the first course, a plate of cured steelhead trout. The vibrant red fillets arrived looking plump and gorgeous, waiting to be plucked from the umami sea of miso cream that swam beneath it. Yet the key is to keep the two together, swirling it here and there like so, because there is just so much chemistry between the fatty fish and its rich, creamy soul mate.
Although Fitzcarraldo likes to flirt with outside influences, it does very well when it stays close to home. The next course featured a very traditional Ligurian dish called farinata, a thick chickpea-based pancake. It arrived in a very enticing fashion, all crisp and golden in a black flat-iron pan, and topped with a divine aioli with chunks of albacore meat mixed in. It tasted as hearty and comforting as you would expect a rustic flatbread to taste, but with a little more character, as the briney kick from the garum and fish roe made things more interesting.
The third course was a pasta dish, a trofie pasta served in some uni butter and mandarin oranges. This was the first setback of the night. When you put uni butter on the menu, you expect a funky, dreamy sensation of thick sea foam, but I didn’t taste the sea at all. I did taste a lot of orange creamsicle, which might be great for dessert but not for your pasta.
What Fitzcarraldo should have done was swap the tricked out trofie for the simple and humble cacio e pepe. On the surface, the pasta looks very plain and unassuming, but never underestimate the power of good cheese and carbs. The melted cheese was impossibly rich and fresh, leaving no doubt to its origins as the descendant of the most whole and creamiest of milk. We ordered this as an add-on to the tasting menu, and while it did fill us up, we gladly made room for it.
The fourth course was a little strange, a seared albacore tuna steak served with grilled mushrooms and rice porridge. I felt like this dish was something out of a test kitchen that hadn’t been fully vetted yet. It was also having a bit of an identity crisis, and I think it was trying to be Asian, which is okay, but it wasn’t Asian enough in the right ways. Congee can be wonderfully flavorful and hearty with the right mix ins, but this rice porridge was congee light, a very clinical rendition of plain gruel without any add-ins. There was a hint of shiso and soy sauce, but not enough to punctuate the ingredients with any meaningful flavor. If they rework this dish to make the fish a little more juicy or infuse the rice with more stock then it would be much improved upon.
The chocolate cake finale was pretty solid–it didn’t necessarily show the same level of technique and creativity as did the other courses, but you can’t really hold a grudge against chocolate cake and cream. Despite a few hiccups, the tasting menu overall had more than enough moments that truly blew me away or opened my eyes to something new. It’s a little inconvenient getting there, but the mecca to this little culinary shangri-la is well worth it.
195 Morgan Avenue (between Meadow and Stagg St)
Brooklyn, NY 11227
Take the L train to Morgan Ave. It’ll be about 6 blocks away from the station.
I started panicking as I waited nearly 15 minutes for the F train to arrive. I didn’t want to be late for my dinner reservation at Take Root in Carroll Gardens, but it seemed like the predictably unreliable weekend service delays were going to make me tardy. Luckily, the train arrived just in the nick of time, and as soon as it stopped at Carroll St, we ran all the way to the restaurant.
As I ran down the street, it struck me how residential everything looked. I felt like I was trying to find someone’s house for a dinner party. And I think that best describes the ambiance of Take Root. When we finally arrived, breathless, we entered a tiny 12-person dining room, with about 4 seats at the bar and 4 tables out front. It was very cozy inside, and specifically the word hygge came to mind, a Dutch term that roughly means creating a warm atmosphere and enjoying the good things in life in that glow.
Chef Elise Kornack and her wife Anna Hieronimus are the only two people running the tight ship at Take Root, which probably explains why there is such limited seating, and why the restaurant only offers one seating each day, Thur-Sat. There was a pretty interesting article on Grub Street that details how the two women manage their time planning, buying, and housekeeping for the restaurant. But don’t think that this is some bootstrap restaurant startup that’s scrambling to serve half-baked dishes to its customers. Elise Kornack is extremely talented, and her 10-course tasting menu is one of the most interesting and rewarding ones that I’ve had in recent memory. She won a Michelin star this year, and she is totally deserving of it.
The menu is seasonally driven and features mostly vegetables, and yes, that certainly is nothing new in a farm-to-table obsessed town, but Kornack has a knack for creating unbelievable chemistry between two or three of the most basic ingredients. And her plating is really clean and very pretty. The most visually stunning dish was the Yukon Gold course, which featured small potato halves that had been scooped out in the middle in the manner of an egg, unleashing a bounty of luscious, liquid cream that resembled an extremely refined Ranch dressing. You derive the same pleasure eating these cream-filled potatoes as you do a Cadbury egg on Easter day.
The beetroot was also plated beautifully, and the spiral patterns in the thin beet slices on top reminded me somewhat of those whimsical and intense Yayoi Kusama polka dot paintings. Drawing you further in was the presence of smoke, yolk and kumquats in the garden of beetroots. Chefs tend to play up a beet’s earthiness, so the fact that a citrus element was incorporated was a novel and successful departure.
While vegetables are prominent on the menu, proteins are also prepared with similar skill and precision. The lamb dumplings, which were part of the pre-tasting course small plates, were deliciously gamey, and they arrived on top of a thick, dense black garlic sauce that could truly stand up to the strong flavors of the lamb. Anjou pears grabbed your attention with the intense chicken liver inside their core, creating a perfect dichotomous nugget of cool, crisp fruit with wild, funky offal.
I found that the seafood here tends to be more elegant and soft spoken than their land brethren. The trout, for instance, was very clean and simple, almost sashimi like, and it was the strip of salty, fatty duck on top that really threw the punch. Similarly, the paddlefish caviar wasn’t as briney or fishy as most fish eggs tend to be. Perhaps this was to be more of a supporting member to the sunchoke, whose sweet, nutty flavor rose to the surface.
They saved the best for last, which in this case was a bowl of beluga lentils cooked in coffee and ham hock, and topped with black truffle. It arrived looking very dark and ferocious, like a scene out of Snow White and the Huntsman, and I was at first a bit intimidated by it. But as soon as I had a bite, I had to take a moment, because I was overwhelmed by how good it was–these lentils were robust, smokey, savory and rich, and I’ve never had anything quite like them.
After the last course, a palate cleansing pre-dessert of grapefruit ice shavings over labneh yogurt arrived, followed by a white chocolate parfait sprinkled with crunchy wheatberries and served with a cranberry puree. I’ve noticed a recent trend in which the sweetness of desserts is getting downplayed, and Take Root seems to embrace this less is more approach. The white chocolate resembled more of a mild panna cotta, and the sharp sourness of the cranberries cut the sweetness even more. It wasn’t as show-stopping as the savory courses, but it was balanced and restrained. Those with a traditional sweet tooth might be slightly disappointed, though.
Dinner service came to an end in two hours, but it felt shorter than that. You really have to give credit to Kornack and Hieronimus for timing everything perfectly–dishes arrived without any significant lags or downtime. As is the case with really good dinner parties, you don’t really want to leave once you’re done, you just want to drink and linger. Especially when there’s a lot of easy-listening Fleetwood Mac on the background. Unfortunately, a lot of other people are waiting in line to get in this party, and so if you want to return for a visit, you’ll have to check online exactly a month in advance of the date you actually want. Good things are worth waiting for, however, and I’ve already scheduled a reminder to check in for any spring seatings.
187 Sackett St
Brooklyn, NY 11231
Online reservations here.
$105 per person
The East Village is on a tear with new hit restaurants–Huertas, Tuome, Cherche Midi, and now The Eddy. The Eddy sounds like the name of an old neighborhood pub, like The King’s Arms or The Eagle and Child, but in reality it is a small and stylish spot that offers New American cuisine in a very comfortable setting. It almost feels out of place in the super casual East Village, like you would expect to find this in the West Village somewhere, but then again why should I be surprised when the gentrification of this neighborhood has been pretty in your face ($18 tacos at Empellon, high rises sprouting right and left, David Schwimmer creating a ruckus with his renovations).
When I first sat down for dinner at The Eddy, I was having a bad case of the Mondays. Work was annoying, and it was cold and raining miserably throughout the whole day. I was pretty grumpy, and because of this attitude, I felt entitled to eat my feelings and decided that this would be a $65 tasting menu kind of day. The food at The Eddy was exactly what I needed. Everything was so comforting and familiar, but never boring or complacent. There was always one element to the preparation that threw me for a loop and made a lasting impression. No one really thinks too hard about panna cotta, but when there’s ice slush and cardamom involved, then you do take pause.
The first few courses come out family style so that the whole group can nosh their way through some communal plates. Up first were some excellent finger foods in the form of fried green tomatoes with smoked cheddar and beef tendon puffs. Let’s talk about these beef tendon puffs for a minute–can Frito Lay package something like this in a bag? Fried crispy beef tendons, surprisingly light and airy, that dissolve in your mouth, with some briney roe lingering for salt and depth? Forget cappuccino chips, let’s bring this to market. The fried green tomatoes were also delicious, because, frankly, anything fried and covered in melted cheese has that kind of an effect. Sweet, juicy, tangy and smokey, it was like eating bbq ketchup in a tater tot form. It sounds weird but it really works.
The second course consisted of burrata with squash, pepitas and seared scallop with chanterelles. Unfortunately, the restaurant had run out of burrata that night, so they substituted it with ricotta cheese. It tasted fine, but nothing can compare with having the liquid, creamy core of a luscious burrata ball meld seamlessly into everything in its path.
The plump scallops were cooked perfectly, and the diced pears were a nice textural diversion in case you found the scallops boring. It was interesting to see how the sweetness had been extracted from the Asian pears so that they assumed a more neutral quality, more parsnip than juicy fruit. I don’t know if this preparation added anything to the dish, and frankly, I’m not sure if the presence of pears was even a necessary one, but it certainly was an unusual way of presenting a fruit, and it did make me think about it even after the meal was over.
It was the third course where the tasting menu peaked–the ricotta gnocchi. These soft pillows unearth mounds of dreamy ricotta cheese that are unlike anything else. If you think gnocchi filled with cheese is overdone and nothing out of the ordinary, you haven’t tried the gnocchi here. Something about the light wrapper seamlessly unleashing this silky, puffy cream is different, and the toasted hazelnuts keep things interesting with their texture and contrasting taste. You keep tearing through them so that you can have more and more of this filling. Unfortunately they only give you about 2 per person, so the dream ends quickly. Unless you order another one for yourself. Whole order, not half.
The entrees were up next, although these seemed a bit more like supporting cast than their small plate super stars. The arctic char was frankly a little bland if you did not eat the crispy skin on, and the ribbons of parsnips didn’t have that much to contribute to the overall flavors. The duck left a much more lasting impression. It was juicy and plump, as good duck meat should be, and the sweet potato puree and vanilla infusion made it seem like Christmas on a plate. And, completely appropriate, because ’tis the season.
The desserts concluded the show in an appropriate fashion–short, sweet and to the point. Panna cotta tends to be one of my least favorite desserts, because I don’t see how you can get all that excited by vanilla cream, but the panna cotta at The Eddy is no plain Jane. You can’t be bland if you’re flavored with cardamom and basil, and lest you be worried that the kitchen is doing this for the sake of being different, the spices are subtle and very much welcome. The olive oil cake was perhaps a little more conventional of the two, but again, there was more than meets the eye of this crowd pleaser. The golden loaf was locked with the rich, lush flavors of the olive oil, especially along its crisp, browned edges, and the bright citrus notes were a welcoming offset. The blueberries served alongside were so plump and juicy, and the lavender milk coated the cake in an arresting, floral veil that was extremely memorable.
It’s restaurants like The Eddy that make me sad about having moved out of the East Village. How great would it be to just roll up to this place, have a seat at the bar, and go to town on some ricotta gnocchi? It’s such a pleasant and comfortable place that is good for so many occasions–date night, dinner with the parents, catching up with friends. In the meantime, it’s going to be a destination restaurant for me, but one definitely worth the trip east.
342 E 6th St (between 2nd and 1st Ave)
New York, NY 10003
Naming your restaurant Contra suggests that your culinary viewpoint will be one of youthful rebellion. Which makes sense, considering the two chefs Jeremiah Stone and Fabian von Hauske are young guns in their 20s with stints at Noma and Isa who are trying to make it on their own. There’s been some backlash against the two relatively inexperienced chefs who dared to have the audacity to execute an ambitious 5-course $55 tasting menu so early in their careers. However, I’m glad that these two lived up to the spirit of the Contra name and defied the critics by going their own way. The cooking was well executed, the flavors were well-balanced, and the price point was pretty reasonable as far as 5-course NYC tasting menus go.
With such renegade origins, it shouldn’t surprise you that the restaurant is located downtown in the LES and caters to a young and trendy crowd. The space is simple, modern and inviting, setting a tone for a more casual and accessible tasting menu experience. I was also relieved to see that the rebellious spirit didn’t translate into small, uncomfortable stools or communal benches, which tends to be an unfortunate byproduct of f* the establishment restaurateurs. Plenty of elbow space here.
The tasting menu kicked off with a plate of the amazing roll of hot, crusty rye bread and chicken fat butter. It tastes as good at it sounds–decadent, smooth butter melting into the soft, chewy pores of delicious bread.
First course – peas, greens avocado. This was one of my favorite dishes–it was fresh, simple and reassuring. It had all the elements of a well-executed pea puree soup, even though the fresh peas were crisp and intact. The inherent sweetness of the peas and the counterbalance of the smooth and savory avocado puree resulted in a winning combination.
Second course – marinated squid supplement. The marinated pan-fried squid dish was a special supplement to the main tasting menu. I liked the char on the squid and thought the sweetness and acidity of the grapes provided some nice accents. It wasn’t one of the best squid dishes I’ve ever had, but it was pretty solid overall.
Third course – bass, cauliflower, zucchini. Bass is a pretty mild and inoffensive fish that has wide appeal. Unfortunately the way it was prepared at Contra was pretty unremarkable. It was definitely cooked well, but nothing about the dish really stood out. It was so unmemorable that I even forgot to take a picture!
Fourth course: pork, corn, dandelion. Things picked up with the pork dish. The cut of meat used was perfect–lean but fatty enough as to avoid compromising that extremely satisfying sensation of eating pork. The corn puree brought some nice texture and mealiness to the dish. All in all, a solid rendition of a familiar classic.
Fifth course: peach, chamomile, herbs. This was the first, and my favorite, of the two dessert courses. I have a weakness for tea-infused desserts in general (I never met an Earl Grey or green tea ice cream that I didn’t like), and not surprisingly the hints of chamomile and herbs in the custard really won me over.
Sixth course: beets, hazelnut, yogurt. I’m not quite sure how I feel about this last course. It was pleasant, but the overall execution lacked cohesion. I felt like someone had served me a dollop of Pinkberry yogurt, a scoop of peanut butter, and a handful of Terra beet chips. The haphazard pairing of seemingly detached ingredients was something the dish really couldn’t overcome.
Overall, the contrary culinary point of view that drove the execution at Contra was a successful one. While not every dish was a home run, each one was prepared with precision and a high level of skill, a testament to the pedigrees of the top chefs running the kitchen. The few flaws that I did detect were due to flavor combinations that weren’t particularly symbiotic but they were never offensive or thoughtless. It’s undeniable that the youthful spirit at Contra is one rooted in talent, but at the same time, I think with more maturity and experience, those kinks in half-baked flavors should work themselves out. I’m definitely looking forward to another visit to see how things have evolved since my fortuitous initial encounter.
— Contra 138 Orchard St. (between Rivington and Delancey) New York, NY 10002 (212) 466-4633