Cast your mind back, if you can, to that moment roughly a week ago, when you were meditating on the collision of worlds Old and New, and the culinary consequences it wrought.
Sure, maybe it looked like you were just mixing milk into a green bean casserole or uncorking a bottle of Beaujolais to serve with the turkey. But it’s impossible to pull off Thanksgiving without giving some thought to border crossings, which is what makes it the perfect holiday for taking stock of Semilla, the Mexico-indebted Westside restaurant opened this summer by sister and brother Jill Schenzel and Macready Downer.
Among the appetizers on Semilla’s menu, which features a number of intricate dishes that executive chef Downer can’t produce on the siblings’ same-named food truck, is a quartet of stubby pork ribs, stacked like so many Lincoln logs. The ribs are glazed heavily with honey: There’s a scattering of cilantro leaves and pepitas atop them, and a splash of lusciously dark mole beneath. In other words, the contrast between European and American contributions to the plate could only be starker if the ribs were wearing little pilgrim hats. (The menu claims there’s chipotle in the honey, but only the most sensitive taste buds could detect it.)
It’s clear the ribs came from a quality pig, and they’re as meaty and tender as any pork fan would want. But flavor-wise, they’re eclipsed utterly by the complex mole, warmed from within by the pumpkin seeds used to thicken it. The pork comes across as so dull in the mole’s company that it didn’t feel like much of a stretch to tear pieces of meat from the bone to swipe through the pepper-blessed sauce, tortilla-style.
The ribs are perhaps the prime example, but it’s a recurring motif at Semilla: The Anglo and Latino influences tend to stand apart on the plate, almost as if there was a wall between them. Downer’s command of classical technique is apparent, but it too often doesn’t work in tandem with the flavors central to Mexican food. This may be the rare instance in which a white man didn’t make a mistake by appropriating another culture’s cuisine: His mistake was in not availing himself of enough of it.
There is some evidence that Downer isn’t entirely timid about throwing down flavor. Exhibit A is an excellent Hatch green chile stew, which happened to make its debut on a night I was visiting. In New Mexico, where the dish is a statewide pastime, chile verde is apt to incorporate tomatillos, jalapenos and cilantro, so it takes on a definite green cast as it simmers. Visually, Semilla’s interpretation has more in common with pho, including a near-consomme clear broth, clusters of chopped fresh vegetables and a helping of grilled pork cuts, rich with acorn-fed fat. All it lacks is the expected chili smack, but the soup at least leaves a pleasant hint of heat on the lips.
It’s a shame that inclination to perk up meats and vegetables with spice so rarely survives R&D at Semilla. One of the dishes that suffers most from Downer’s light hand with seasoning is one I’d wager is ordered by just about everyone: Mexican-ish restaurants might as well go ahead and auto-guac every table, since it’s the rare diner who can turn down the dip.
What they’re envisioning, though, is likely worlds away from what Semilla serves, which is essentially avocado toast, minus the toast. A dinky amount of tomatoes and onions is gently mashed into the unsalted chunks, but I couldn’t taste any pepper at all. No jalapeno, no serrano, not even cayenne. Of course, that doesn’t mean a chile pepper didn’t make the cut — jalapeno is listed on the menu as a guacamole ingredient — but I’ve magnified the photo on my phone and still can’t see it.
On the plus side, the chips were crisp. Semilla also does a nice job with its corn tortillas, which anchor the tacos and accompany a queso flameado, another presumptive crowd pleaser. The cheese is set afire tableside in a way that’s hilariously unceremonious: The server flicks a cigarette lighter and moves on to another task before the bluish flames subside. There’s not much that’s ever wrong with melted cheese, a motto that holds true here, but the chorizo it conceals is so meek that the combination tastes more like a Midwestern chili-cheese dog than the start of a party.
Typically, I would say here that “the restaurant” or “the kitchen” could stand to use more peppers, but Semilla is such a scaled-down operation that both of those nouns feel unnecessarily imprecise. Downer, who worked under Kevin Binkley in Arizona and Jose Andres in Washington D.C., does the cooking. Schenzel minds the floor, with the help on most nights of a single server. The setup isn’t much changed from the truck, which remains a critical component of Semilla’s business: Downer and Schenzel quit serving lunch at the restaurant so they could stay on the road at midday.
Yet what Semilla gained by settling down in the former Lee Lee’s Hot Kitchen was a great-looking dining room. It’s a casual space, with lots of live plants and wooden chairs painted pink. But its suitability for dinner is conveyed by striped linen napkins and moss green wallpaper, printed with elegant sugar skulls rendered in gold.
As for what to order, it’s best to stick to dishes that skew sweet. On Thursday nights, there’s an agave-glazed fried chicken that shakes in its batter like a gift in a too-big box. It’s an impressive combination of brittle and juice, served with headily fragrant short-grain rice. A fun recent addition to the appetizer list is a bowl of tortilla chips with melted cheese; bits of smoked trout; pearl-like trout roe, primed to pop; and lots and lots of pickled red onions.
Another newer dish is an expertly made duck confit, which splits the plate with wedges of grilled pear. It’s pretty terrific, and lines up almost exactly with what the genuinely charismatic Downer and Schenzel pictured for their restaurant in 2014, when they first shared their plans with City Paper. Schenzel then said that despite his background in molecular gastronomy and French cuisine, her brother would concentrate on what he was calling “American gourmet.”
Two years later, with the project stalled, they shifted course to a taco truck as a way to raise capital. “American gourmet” was shelved, at least as a guiding concept. But the enthusiasm and capability for it clearly didn’t disappear: Perhaps the Charleston dining public will get to see more of it soon.