We were able to visit Semilla last month for a rare long dinner out. There's a fun duality to Semilla. The food is simultaneously simple and complex. The wine list is short and thorough. The service is not obtrusive but extremely knowledgeable. And though there's no menu, by the next morning you receive a lovely e-mail with the list of dishes we enjoyed. And we enjoyed all of them; some more than others no doubt. Each dish brought either a surprise ingredient, technique or both. For instance, the Carolina rice (a homestead favorite) was cooked in dashi and served in an earthenware bowl reminiscent of Japan. But the rice was 100% South Carolina! The bread recalled my best-ever attempts at Jim Lahey's no-knead bread. We ate multiple servings. The roasted leeks had the most pleasant aroma of tobacco (even for a non-smoker) and a perfect dice of scallops. It was the dish that won me over and something I'll try to replicate at home (without the tobacco leaf).
The only two dishes we didn't enjoy tremendously were the butternut squash and the fig leaf custard. The first was like something from the Moosewood cookbook. Nice. Well-made. But a little healthy-tasting. The custard was dull-flavored and texture-wise a bit of a tweener; not quite creme brulee, but not the texture of zabaglione.
Semilla is a special occasion restaurant. Plain and simple (see footnote). And if the occasion is enjoying many well-conceived dishes that spur your mind, then it's perhaps the top spot in New York.
I want to highlight the setting. The design is a u-shaped bar where any of the staff can walk up to any of the dining patrons. The lighting is subtle and bright enough to enjoy the visual appeal of each dish. If I ever opened a restaurant, this feels like a blueprint I'd look to.
Footnote: You can't simply walk in for a bite. You can't walk in for a meal. We saw a few people walk in from the street only to be turned away since they hadn't reserved.
Wednesday, October 5, 2016
Two Fridays ago, wifey & I had an early dinner at Olmstead. I expected to dislike Olmstead. Restaurants with this amount of buzz, that required 22-days advance notice to get a reservation usually feel like a letdown (Cosme - I'm looking at you.) And yet there at the end, we were finished and completely blown away by the quality and conceit of each and every dish. Olmstead – in our one experience – is a winner.
We sat in front of the tiny kitchen quickly befriending the cooks (Jenny and Kyle) as we watched them work on dish after dish. There’s no need for me to go into long detail (mostly because this blog is primarily for myself) as each dish was excellent and it looks like the menu turns over frequently enough that the same dish won’t be found a month or two later. Out of all the dishes we ate, we both thought the ballotine component of the duck entrée to be most delicious. I have memories of ballotines from the 90s being really lackluster chicken thigh meat filled with a unappealing goo (nee Pate). The whole thing just a vacuous attempt at fancy food. This was something wholly different; more like a perfectly executed duck forcemeat, sliced like pancetta.
We enjoyed a bottle of Slovenian white with our meal and left having spent just shy of $200. For what’s prepared, I would not call that expensive, but it’s definitely not a monthly indulgence.
On the eve of a new school year and willing to try out our children’s patience for a semi-formal meal, I took the family to Le Garage in Bushwick. Le Garage is a glorious place in late summer. It’s a former garage that’s been designed to be open, airy, and carefree. We didn’t feel crowded or confined on a bustling Friday evening. And in true bistro fashion, the owner, Rachel, came and sat with us for some time. Her ethereal movements and sincere interest pair perfectly with the place.
We ordered like hungry soldiers (all meats) and each entrée was very good. Our biggest issue was the service. Nobody was rude. No real scandals; it was simply a meal that they paced poorly. Our entrees took a long time to arrive, with our chicken clearly completed before our lamb and steak (the chicken was warm; the others screaming hot). My kids are pretty patient and willing to talk about the paint color (yellow), the sidewalk seating (5 tables or so), and the cutlery (sharp steak knife) for a long time. But they needed some pencils and paper to help with the wait. Two other tables (both two-tops) sat and ordered after us, but received entrees before us. Our waitress (seemingly the only one) appeared uninterested and overwhelmed.
Overall, Le Garage is a nice restaurant if you’re in the neighborhood. Unlike, BK Jani, it’s not worth travelling for.
Tuesday, August 30, 2016
The entire family went for a drive through the confusing streets of Bushwick and returned well-fed and enlivened by tremendously high-quality food. This is unmatched meat grilling in New York City. Everything is marinated in yogurt redolent of ginger, garlic and classic Mughal spices.
The no nonsense space (picnic tables) makes for a casual wait. And wait you will. Unlike Babu ji, everything goes from raw to cooked after ordering. The afternoon we went, there were 5 menu items. We ordered four (lamb two ways, beef two ways) dishes and all were fantastic. No clear favorite; all were great. The seekh kebab was the spiciest while the burger was the least.
If any detractor exists, it’s the limeade. At $6, this is a waste of money that you could put towards more meat. Anyone with three limes and the capability to make simple syrup could replicate the limeade. But the meats, copying BK Jani’s quality would be highly unlikely .
There’s nothing right with this restaurant. I’ve gone over the experience numerous times in my head. Every dish was average to poor. Babu ji is not a place I’d recommend to anyone. Sad. I had high hopes (on my 2016 list). Here are four observations.
Chef and I (Chef is my friend who is actually an executive chef) sat at the bar because we typically like bar eating. Babu ji doesn’t really have a bar. If you look close, you’ll notice there’s no water or waste lines at the bar so they can’t prepare anything there. In fact, the bar is simply for pouring wines and organize plates. Essentially, the restaurant designers moved the kitchen pass into the front of the house. So there’s no bartender for chit chat and recommendations. There’s no convivial vibe from fellow bar eaters. The bar is simply high chairs at a 2’-wide ledge.
Second, let’s review the two appetizers: yogurt kebabs and batata vada. Both arrived lukewarm; clearly made during prep and assembled as the order comes in (Give them pre-made food and turn those tables!) Both arrived in delicious but very thin sauces (the croquettes came with a beet sauce that was especially tasty via spoon, but nearly impossible to dress the croquette with due to its viscosity). We were upset by the food’s temperature but horrified that both dishes arrived with orchid flowers on top. Orchids can be toxic. First rule of plating, you never put something on the plate that’s toxic.
Third, I inquired about the beef curry. That sounded interesting.
Me: What’s the cut of beef and where’s the beef from? [At $24 in the East Village, I expect a response.]
Waiter: I don’t know.
Me: Can you ask the kitchen? [Chef smirking now]
Waiter: Hold on. I’ll ask but the chef’s not here.
Waiter: The kitchen doesn’t know but you can call Donald tomorrow and ask [Waiter hands me notepad piece of paper.] But it’s very delicious.
Chef: Ok, we’ll order the daal, beef curry, aged basmati rice, and assortment of naan.
The beef curry was terrible in two ways. The kitchen garnished the curry with a vegetable spirals (as seen on TV during Three’s Company reruns) and a really rough julienne of ginger. Raw ginger. In the evening mood light, I thought it was crisped threads of potato. Wrong and I paid dearly for this miscalculation. For the following 5 minutes everything tasted like raw ginger. Second issue with this beef curry was the cut of beef. It was something incredibly lean and thus extremely dry.
Finally, we were served 3 naan simultaneously in a wicker basket with no linen liner. By the time Chef and I got to the 3rd, the naan was cold, flaccid and unappealing.
There were myriad other minor mistakes and issues. Overall, Babu ji is a restaurant with no soul or attention to quality. Still, it was jam-packed on a Thursday in August.
Tuesday, March 29, 2016
Well 2015 was a failure in trying the restaurants I wanted to visit in New York City. I did get to Cosme (which was uneventful and forced) as well as Benoit (which was delightful, satisfying and top-shelf) before the review. In 2016, I've been back to Benoit three times in three months.
2016: The Realistic List of 9
2016: The Realistic List of 9