Pam Yung and José Ramírez-Ruiz, the chef couple behind Brooklyn’s Semilla restaurant, are serious about vegetables. They put produce in protein’s place, not in a tofurkey way, but in a dehydrated cabbage sandwich with nasturiums, cabbage slaw, and buckwheat groats sort of way. In this, they’re in vogue. It’s the age of highfalutin vegetable cookery. Readers, we need wines to go with it.
Luckily, Jess Kiefer, the young beverage director at Semilla, is on it. To match the chefs’ focus on organic and local produce, Kiefer buys wines made with “minimal intervention, no added or little sulphur, native yeast, and no added chemicals,” she says. “Thoughtful wine made from small producers, because Pam and José do same thing with food. They’re looking for small foragers and farms.”
Taste-wise, Kiefer’s sourcing results in a whole lot of freshness. “The backbone of any wine is the acidity. With that you get minerality as well. Brightness and freshness like that comes with buying natural wine,” says Kiefer. “People think natural wine is funky and stinky and crazy. Those profiles can fit, but actually they also have balance. I look to find clean, fresh, balanced wines.”
Given the complexity of the cooking at Semilla, however, Kiefer can’t just rest on freshness. “Every single dish here has so many elements that pairing is kind of impossible. So we choose something the elevates the taste and doesn’t get in the way of it.”
Take, for instance, that cabbage sandwich. The delightfully Ashkenazi-tasting bite, in which dried cabbage plays the part of the bread, slaw plays the filling, and buckwheat takes the role of condiment, would barely seem to lend itself to wine. It tasted to me like Friday dinner at my Grandma Syl’s house. (Insert here some schtick about Manischewitz.) But a glass of Domaine Belluard ‘Les Perles du Mont Blanc’ Brut NV, a biodynamic sparkling made from gringet, a grape native to Ayse, in the Savoie region of France, worked with that “sandwich.” Tart and bready, it was like a bubbly stand-in for pumpernickel.
It also proved versatile. With its creamy, yeasty flavor and bright pearlike nose, it went even better with a Parmesan and d’Anjou pear soup. Beneath the soup’s warm and cheesy surface ran cool pear-juice currents with roasted allium depth. Pearls of trout roe gave the soup a bubble-tea pop that recalled the bubbles in the wine. The pairing was wacky, delicious, and thought-provoking. Associations, yes, bubbled forth.
That’s the way things go at Semilla: The dishes tell their own stories, and the wines embellish. The tales can get wild, and the night seems like it might go off the rails. But you end up coming out very much alive. This is not pairing; it’s an adventure series written in veg and grape.
“The word ‘pairing’ puts too much pressure on the wine: ‘Oh, this doesn’t exactly fit with this.’ That’s not what we’re going for,” says Kiefer. “They’re not pairings; they’re accompaniments. The wine is something to experience while experiencing the food.”
One of the staples here is chawanmushi, a savory Japanese egg custard that lends itself to all sorts of mix-ins. A smoky rendition with sunchokes, mushrooms, and parsley came with a glass of Quantico Etna Bianco 2011, a blend of Sicilian white grapes grown at 1,800 feet and fermented with native yeast. Gassy and herbaceous, the wine deepened the mushrooms’ umami while its acidity balanced the sunchokes’ sweetness. It was a rare find.
“When you’re buying wines by such small producers, you get a little bit and can’t get any more until the next year, so it’s important to show them,” says Kiefer. “That goes along with the menu, which changes day to day, so you’ll never come in and have same beverage pairing or menu.”
But you will drink lots of natural wines made from mountain-climbing vines. Their brightness helps highlight the vegetables’ purity, while their idiosyncracies speak to the preparations’ weird genius. Beet tartar, dappled with foie gras and served with a mushroom crisp, tasted deliciously like pastrami. The sparkling red poured with it, Tre Daine Eratlia Rosso Bio 2013, was a shape-shifter too: earth, Band-Aid, cider vinegar, wet fur. “Neco wafer,” my dining companion said. There was, indeed, a hint of menthol to it, which tempered the powerful tartar, like a Cel-ray soda would a pastrami on rye.
Speaking of rye, a highlight of the meal here is Yung’s daily experiment in bread and butter. Her sprouted rye–and–poppyseed sourdough had a crust so righteously charred, it tasted like chocolate. Its crumb was as puddinglike as the chawanmushi. The butter, flavored with ramps fermented with whey, smacked of funk and flowers. The wine was floral, too: Petit Burja Vipavska Dolina 2013, a fragrant blend of malvasia and zelen made by Primož Lavrenčič, whose family has been fermenting grapes in Slovenia’s Vipava Valley since the 16th century. A big white, it stood up, as well, to the bittersweet punch of a dish of overwintered kale, wood sorrrel, and mustard greens dressed in cocoa and warm crème fraîche.
“Slovenian whites are really fun,” said Kiefer. “They have an earthy Italian wildness. Skin contact [during fermentation] makes this one powerful, and it’s nice to have something with a little bit more power on list.”
It had rather more muscle than the lithe red that went with the carrots that followed. Accordion-sliced in a way that made them a visual stand-in for wild salmon, the orange roots were roasted and set atop a vermillion pool made from fava bean leaves, a jolt of spring. The wine, too, was springlike. Unfiltered, unfined, and unsulphured, a gamay left to its own designs, the Château des Bachelards ‘Les Chemins de Traverse’ 2013 was light, tart, and slightly frizzante, smacking of barnyard and cracked black pepper. Like all of the wines at Semilla, it had an offbeat charisma that made it not the sidekick, but an equal partner to the dish.
“It’s a good example of those funky natural wines that people expect,” Kiefer admitted, “in a great way.”
The meal ended with another funky number, to go with Yung’s outrageous desserts: a preserved tomato, vanilla ice cream, and bergamot granita parfait that tasted like the world’s most aromatic creamsicle; and a caramelly-as-get-out oat porridge with beets and brown butter. The Salinia Wine Company ‘Saint Marigold’ Chardonnay 2007, an iconoclast from the Russian River Valley, smashed any expectation of California chardonnay expectations to pieces. It was more Jura—the French region known for sherry-like vin jaune wine—than Sonoma. The slightly oxidized, 18-percent-alcohol Saint Marigold tasted of boozed-up apples and nuts.
How the heck did it get that way? “The winemaker, Kevin Kelley, put it in a barrel, put in the cellar, and forgot about. The wine created its own seal, with a layer of flor—yeast—like old barrels get.” Kiefer explained. “It came out oxidized with really pure fruit: baked spiced apple and great acidity. It’s not sherry but it has the same salty, carmelly character. Next to Pam’s desserts, which are not very sweet, a wine with oxidation—a little fruit and but not sweet—goes well. He only bottled the one barrel of it, and we were lucky to get it.”
And I, in turn, felt lucky to drink it. It was the sendoff to a meal that showcased nature’s, well, natural charisma on the plate and in the bottle. 160 Havemeyer St.; 718-782-3474; semillabk.com.