The first thing you experience when entering Semilla Eatery & Bar is the sweet aroma emanating from a wall of potted herbs. They're a welcome respite from the construction craziness on Alton Road.
You'll also be relieved to hear "Wrecking Ball" sung by someone other than Miley Cyrus and see the large metal horseshoe bar, showcasing an open kitchen with chefs wearing checkered fedoras while working the centralized teppanyaki station.
Executive chef and owner Frederic Joulin was French President Jacques Chirac's private chef for two years and worked with three-Michelin-star chef Guy Savoy in Paris. Joulin knows tough customers and conditions. Yet asked about the construction outside, he utters, "Horrible, horrible," in a heavy French accent.
But Joulin turns lemons into $6 Bonne Maman lemonade cocktails. Every day, from 6 to 8 p.m., the restaurant also offers Florida draft beers, well drinks, wines by the glass, cocktails, pot stickers, tempura, and barbecue skewers for $6 each.
The pot stickers come in playful variations such as Buffalo chicken, braised beef short rib, barbecued ribs, and organic tofu with vegetables. Imagine the enjoyment of eating chicken wings without the bones or messy finger-licking. Seasoned chicken with hot sauce is stuffed in wonton skins, fried, and served with a blue cheese sauce. It's a winning idea — use Japanese cooking techniques with American fillings — but the execution is lacking. The pot stickers were inconsistent. One was too cold, only one had perfect crunch on the bottom, and very few were just right.
Braised beef short-rib pot stickers fared better. The short rib is prepared with portobello mushrooms in a green curry sauce for seven hours. It is then packaged in its dumpling casing and fried on an iron griddle using oil and an upside-down metal bowl. It all makes for a fun show and a pot sticker with a lot of depth.
Barbecue skewers stand tall and proud. The tender flesh is pierced by a thin wooden stick and placed in a dish with holes so it can be showcased like a long-stemmed rose in a vase. Three skewers make this dish the perfect date-night bite — one for each of you and the middle stick to share. Though the juices were dripping, the meat's moisture remained, and the flavor could be regained by a dip in the accompanying tasty sauces. The organic chicken anticucho variety was juicy and tangy, and a Peruvian pepper sauce added some heat. The beef tenderloin skewers, more innocent and coy, came topped with sweet soy.
The standout dish is the octopus. Its meat is charred on a wood-fired grill, sliced, and served on a bed of fennel, radish, and frisée with citrus dressing. It's light and fresh, and the tentacles' suction cups carry the char like a textural and flavorful badge of honor.
There's a bit of everything on the menu, and at one point, the table was brimming with pot stickers, ceviche, and macaroni and cheese. Not all worldly dishes were superior. The hamachi ceviche with leche de tigre rivaled some local Peruvian restaurants' versions in freshness and taste, but the mac and cheese, employing fettuccine-style noodles, was sad and flat. My journey into that plate lasted only one twirl around the fork.
The most showmanlike item is the 18-ounce New York Strip for two. From high atop barstools, my guest and I eagerly watched the steak's exterior sizzle and turn from red to brown before the chef cut the meat to ask if it was the medium-rare we desired. It was. He served it on one plate with two dipping sauces. It also featured smoky enoki mushrooms and a whole clove of garlic charred and sliced in half. Stick with the Brussels sprouts fried in tempura batter as a more appropriate accompaniment.
Scallops are cooked on the teppanyaki grill in a lemon-caper butter and then delicately placed over whipped potatoes. The natural sweetness of the mollusk comes through, and each bite is soft and silky like a smooth French kiss.
The blood-red "beetnik" martini — concocted with beet-infused Tito's vodka, a strong ginger syrup, and lemon sour — definitely contains booze, though the fresh flavors make it taste almost like a pricey cold-pressed juice. The mojito also comes fresh with a sugar-cane stick for stirring or chewing when feeling bashful on a date.
In the later hours, Semilla fills with French diners speaking their native tongue.
Perhaps that's why the desserts here feature a mix of American and French influences. On the French side is a fist-size raspberry macaron, and on the American side is a house-made Snickers candy bar and an apple and pear crumble that, according to our server, gets its brilliant crunch from Frosted Flakes.
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Try the ice-cream minisliders, which exquisitely combine both cuisines. The setup goes like this: The sesame-seed-studded macaron is the "bun," a mango and passionfruit gelée makes up the orange "cheese" layer, and chocolate-encased ice cream plays the part of the patty.
"It's like a Krabby Patty from SpongeBob SquarePants," our server quipped.
Semilla, the Spanish word for "seed," is in its zone with this elevated ice-cream sandwich, a playful and punny fusion of different cultures.
The truth, though, is that the soil hasn't been nurturing enough for this restaurant to flourish like the herbs lining the wall. The concept is a bit scattered, and Joulin and his team are doing whatever it takes to keep customers happy and ride out the wave of road construction. There's a lot of promise given Joulin's vision, talent, and experience, but with the black asphalt canker limiting clientele, only time will tell if Semilla can grow.