Semilla’s Vegetable Tasting

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.

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inside the kitchen

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.

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tomato gazpacho with smoked peaches and radish and arugula
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roasted tomato with corn and parmesan
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sweet corn chawanmushi
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roasted eggplant with pepper leaves and mussel broth
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house sourdough bread with buttermilk butter

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.

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tomato salad with cucumber and scallops
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tomato tart
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chicken of the woods risotto
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peach saffron and bitter almond
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tarragon profiteroles with wild blueberries

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.


Semilla
No. 5, 160 Havemeyer St (between S 2nd and S 3rd St)
Brooklyn, NY 11211
(718) 782-3474
Two seatings daily from Tues-Sat

Dirt Candy’s Vegetable Brunch

Dirt Candy officially launched brunch service at their Lower East Side space. We dropped by during the soft open, and not surprisingly, it was doing brisk business. There was a nice, neighborhood feel to the place, despite the slick, new relocation, with small groups and families enjoying the brunch, including Bob Tuschman of the Food Network!

The menu, as expected, features traditional brunch fare with a seasonally-driven, vegetarian twist. You can choose from corn french toast, green huevos and no ham, zucchini pancakes, carrot granola, omelette with a spicy cilantro radish filling and a “canadian cracker” waffle with cheddar and roasted tomatoes. Even brunch libations get the vegetable treatment. You can order a “bloody carrie,” which has grilled carrot in it, or a yellow pepper mimosa, which utilizes real yellow pepper juice as a mixer.

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corn french toast
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green huevos and no ham

If you’re feeling more lunch than brunch, there are several hearty veggie sandwiches you can choose from–the greens sandwich, which consists of various stir-fried greens in two giant slabs of focaccia bread, a smoky beet sandwich that apparently resembles pastrami, a cabbage and avocado with kimchi option, and an intriguing spinach ramen salad.

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the greens stir-fried broccoli sandwich

The way to go here is to share a brunch dish, a lunch sandwich, and the corn french toast as a dessert. This is one square meal that you won’t forget!


Dirt Candy
86 Allen St (between Broome and Grand St)
New York, NY 10002
(212) 228-7732

Cafe Clover’s Skinny Eats

For the stylish and health conscious, Cafe Clover is the restaurant to see and be seen. The big, circular dining room is prime for people watching, and everyone is certainly dressed for the occasion, with suit and ties and designer handbags in tow. I was probably a little under-dressed in my J.Crew sweater and shorts, but the congenial waitstaff didn’t hold it against me, which was nice.

The menu at Cafe Clover has been designed with skinny girls and calorie counts in mind. In an interview with Well + Good, Chef David Standridge, formerly of Market Table, mentioned that he’ll try to repurpose a delicious dish to have less calories. They even have a Peak Performance nutritionist on hand to help skinny things down, that’s how serious they are about it.  Less calories doesn’t necessarily mean less flavor, but we’d be lying to ourselves if we said there wasn’t a difference.

seed crackers and spring pea guacamole
seed crackers and spring pea guacamole
seared diver scallops with summer corn, tomatoes, pickled peach and green curry
seared diver scallops with summer corn, tomatoes, pickled peach and green curry

For instance, instead of bread and butter, Cafe Clover serves every table a complimentary plate of gluten-free seed crackers and spring pea guacamole. The crackers, true to their word, are purely made of seeds and there isn’t a fiber of gluten holding them together. Knock out a pepita and the whole thing crumbles. It certainly tastes wholesome, but nothing compares to a basket of hot, freshly baked gluten-filled bread.

poached halibut with artichokes, baby potato, olive tapenade, turmeric oil
poached halibut with artichokes, baby potato, olive tapenade, turmeric oil
blistered shishito peppers
blistered shishito peppers

The poached halibut was actually pretty solid, the fillet was soft and buttery, but you could tell that perhaps they used maybe half the olive oil or wine to cook the fish in. I thought the artichokes and the olive tapenade came on too strong, but otherwise I would order this again. Something I would pass on? The blistered shishito peppers. In a traditional preparation, the peppers are mild and soft, but the ones at Cafe Clover were at times way too spicy and still pretty tough. I think they may have flashed them in the pan for a hot minute and then removed them so that the oil wouldn’t get absorbed too much. I would also pass on the seared diver scallops. They were too dry and tasted as though they had been toasted directly on a pan without any oil, and the accompanying sauce and pickled vegetables felt a bit overdone.

quinoa tagliatelle with beet greens, maitake mushrooms and sunflower kernels
quinoa tagliatelle with beet greens, maitake mushrooms and sunflower kernels

The quinoa tagliatelle was the one dish where health and flavor made a successful collaboration. This dish was just as hearty and robust as any bowl of bolognese from a Babbo or Del Posto, which was impressive, given that there were only mushrooms and beefy vegetable proteins in there. The noodles broke apart a little too easily, which I assume is due to the unconventional whole wheat and quinoa blend, but those broken bits still tasted great.

Not surprisingly, this dinner left me wanting more, probably because my usual dinner calorie and fat intake had been cut in half. And also half the flavor. There’s no doubt that Cafe Clover is a beautiful restaurant with good intentions, but sometimes being just another pretty face won’t cut it.


Cafe Clover
10 Downing St (between Bedford St and 6th Ave)
New York, NY 10014
(212) 675-4350

 

 

 

Vegan Food, by CHLOE

When I took Ruoxi to the new vegan restaurant by CHLOE in Greenwich Village, the first thing he said was, “Wow, there are a lot of girls here.” It’s true that the ratio of women to men was largely skewed towards female, and you could probably count the number of men on two hands. He looked concern, taking the lack of dudes to be a sign that this food would be too healthy and spa-like to appeal to people like him.

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the classic burger with a tempeh-lentil-chia-walnut patty, pickles, onion, beet ketchup, special sauce and potato bun
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air baked sweet potato french fries

Which is why it was impressive that he was so sold on the Classic Burger, which he proclaimed to be the best veggie burger he had ever tried. Granted, he probably has only ever tried two veggie burgers in his life, but Ruoxi never judges on a curve, which means the Classic Burger was objectively a great burger. This patty, a blend of tempeh, lentil, chia and walnut, will never truly mimic a juicy, savory meat patty, but the light, nutty veggie “hash brown”, if you will, had its own merits. The tangy pickles and the ketchup like special sauce also helped to make the experience of eating the veggie burger taste very, very similar to the real thing. The air baked sweet potato fries, on the other hand, were just as tasty and crispy as the fried version.

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spicy thai salad with apricot-sriracha glazed tempeh, quinoa, edamame, scallion, crispy wontons and peanut dressing

The salads here are not the leafy kinds that you would normally expect. They’re big, hearty bowls that are densely full of good stuff. The spicy thai salad, for instance, looked like a bowl of Chinese takeout on a bed of quinoa and edamame, and the taste wasn’t that far off either. The apricot-sriracha glaze on the chicken-like tempeh had caramelized into a crispy shell that was very reminiscent of General Tso’s. It was extremely satisfying, much like a meal from P. F. Chang’s, but 10x healthier.

This vegan restaurant was so good, that Ruoxi said he would willingly come back for some more, even if it meant sitting awkwardly between lots of girls and their yoga mats. Chloe or whoever is running the restaurant knows what she’s doing. She’s focused on making good, wholesome food that actually tastes good. Yes, the initial draw might be the health conscious chicks, but with food this good, first come the girls, and then come the guys…


by CHLOE
185 Bleecker Street (between Macdougal and Sullivan St)
New York, NY 10012
(212) 290-8000

 

L’Arpege in Paris

With three Michelin stars and a #12 ranking on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants List, L’Arpège is clearly a force to be reckoned with. Alain Passard’s beautiful, seasonally-driven vegetable creations have taken the world’s breath away, and any chef who has trained in his kitchen has leveraged that stamp of approval to run successful restaurants of his or her own. It’s rare to find these sorts of accolades bestowed upon a vegetarian restaurant in the fine dining world, so we were very much looking forward to our lunch reservation, as we figured the food here must be exceptional in order to warrant that attention and such high prices.

at restaurant arpege
at restaurant arpege
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amuse bouche of garlic and sugar snap peas in a pastry
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fresh tabbouleh with cheese and garden vegetables
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egg yolk with cream and maple syrup

Truth be told, I felt like I was watching the Emperor wear his new clothes as our tasting lunch unfolded. Can serving a large white asparagus on a plate count as a novel preparation? Did that even require that much skill, other than picking it out of the ground? Or what about a cucumber maki roll? Isn’t that something that I could get as takeout at Beyond Sushi, at a quarter of the price and made with much better sushi rice? The king’s looking mighty naked right now.

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cucumber maki with asparagus and sorrel pesto. not impressed.
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asparagus on a plate. literally.

To be fair, there were moments when L’Arpège really stepped it up, got properly dressed, and gave it its all, as demonstrated by the dreamy risotto and the zucchini and garlic soup. The vegetables in the risotto were so expressive, conveying a rich variety of texture and flavor that truly created a cohesive experience. And there was no arguing that the luscious, smoky and creamy puree of the zucchini and garlic was flawless.

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vegetable risotto
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zucchini and garlic soup with whipped cream and speck

There were other moments where I did observe a dexterous treatment of vegetables that teased out interesting and unexpected contrasts. The trio of vegetable tarts that arrived as an amuse bouche was such an example. These beautiful tarts yielded a wide range of unexpected flavors, sweet, earthy, bitter and floral, that belied their sweet facade. It embraced the natural flavors of the vegetable and pushed you to rethink what it meant to be a sweet tart.

And then there was the cucumber and onion broth, in which the kitchen managed to tease out a flavor that resembled steeped tea, which was unusual and impressive. But then that was offset by strange moments like the vegetable sausage with harissa and cumin, which felt more like a vegan experiment than a fully thought out gourmet effort.

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vegetable tarts with red onion, black currant, chamomile and carrots
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vegetable ravioli in a cucumber and onion broth
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vegetable sausage flavored with harissa and cumin, served in cous cous
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an assortment of desserts, including turnip raspberry tart, apple tart and caramel
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raspberry rhubarb mille feuille
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hay ice cream profiteroles

Is it obvious that I was a tad disappointed by the end of my meal? I went to go see a performance only to sit down to a bizarre strip tease. And the small cup of coffee that cost 13 euros added insult to injury. On a positive note, I suppose, was that I no longer had to see the Emperor naked. Time to see a chef wearing his chef’s whites for real.


L’Arpège
84 Rue de Varenne, 75007 Paris, France
Invalides
33 1 47 05 09 06