What you see is what you get at Semilla Eatery & Bar. From the fresh herbs growing in terracotta pots suspended from one wall to the steaks that sizzle on an open griddle in the middle of the room, the 3-month-old South Beach eatery is out and proud with its food prep and ingredients.
A select cast of creative small plates and a few large entrees make this a casual chic spot primarily for sharing and pairing. The extensive drinks menu outweighs the dinner choices, with craft beers and creative cocktails made with beets, blackberries, tarragon leaves and other herbalicious combinations.
There’s a French seaside vibe emanating from the light wood, burlap table runners, large, hanging mirrors and upholstered banquette. A steel-topped, L-shaped bar with a teppanyaki-style cook station in the middle commands the large room. Happy-hour diners get the best deal here nightly, with local draft beers, cocktails and select tapas dishes $6 from 6 to 8 p.m.
Tableside, complimentary crusty French bread slices, delivered with olive oil and pink salt, give a warm first impression, along with friendly, smart servers. (So does free parking in the back – a luxury on Alton Road, which is undergoing heavy construction.)
Blue Pointe Virginia oysters are excellent starters, with two zesty contrasting sauces, one blood orange-white balsamic vinegar, the other a mignonette of red vinegar and shallots.
Among the four ceviches and crudos, the salmon and avocado tartar is a vibrant orange stack of delicate fish cubes and creamy avocado chunks, with julienned fried pot-sticker dough adding crunch. Four house-made pot stickers with hearty fillings like barbecue ribs and roasted chicken are highlighted on the menu, but we found the braised beef short-rib version with green curry heavy and chewy.
Of three tempura options, the lightly battered fish and chips, made with American sole and a traditional tartar sauce, was a salty, crunchy treat, accompanied by house-made potato chips.
The simple fare is a departure for chef-owner Frederic Joulin, who served up high-end French-American food at the short-lived Villa Mayfair in Coconut Grove. The classically trained Parisian chef, a one-time personal chef to French President Jacques Chirac, excels at striking a balance between letting natural flavors sing and matchmaking Mother Nature’s flavors in complex sauces.
This skill is best demonstrated by the tenderloin beef barbecue skewers, which come to the table upright, stuck into a thin wooden platter. On their own, the three slices of filet are juicy and smoky. Dipped into the tall bowl of accompanying spicy-sweet soy sauce, they become divine.
Less impressive was the rack of lamb with pimiento crust, which was extremely fatty and rare yet lacked flavor. The scallops, presented on pillows of barely mashed potatoes with green onion and tarragon butter, also were lackluster.
The biggest disappointment: Florida red snapper with lemon capers. Although thinly sliced potatoes made a fine crust, they couldn’t mask the flat, frozen quality of the fish. We’ve had fresher, most satisfying snapper standing at a counter in Westchester.
Vegetables, which must be ordered separately, are sturdy enough to stand on their own, but the two we tried – Brussels sprouts fried in tempura batter and bok choy with bacon crumble – had their snappiness reduced by overwhelming sauces.
The desserts we sampled – a crumbly apple tart and fresh berries soaked in Grey Goose vodka – stuck to the simple, light theme.
Billed as a “modern gastro pub,” Semilla wants to be a neighborhood hangout, but its awkward seating makes that difficult. The hard, stiff banquette and wooden high-back chairs are lovely to look at, but a tad too high. The square, wood tables, meanwhile, are slightly low, leaving diners uncomfortably hunched over. Classic top 40 radio tunes piped in overhead – Beatles, Sting, Motown – set a strange, generic tone.
It’s tough to carve out an identity in South Beach. If Joulin and business partner Karel Volot want to create the neighborhood’s go-to spot for drinks and light dining, they’ll have to work harder at matching the space with the sparks of brilliance that fly from the kitchen.
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