La Semilla is now open at Modera Reynoldstown on Memorial Drive, flexing the flavors of Cuban and Mexican dishes on a menu rooted in veganism and family recipes. And for owners Sophia Marchese and Reid Trapani, La Semilla (the seed) is just the beginning of a new chapter in their restaurant careers.
Like many of their contemporaries in the Atlanta restaurant community, La Semilla was forged from a pop-up the couple launched in 2018 as a facet of their vegan catering business. Called Happy Seed, the menu comprised mostly vegan Cuban dishes, which drew inspiration from recipes passed down to Marchese from her grandmother. The goal was to eventually open a restaurant together, and to one day form a hospitality group with restaurants centered on veganism.
At La Semilla, the pair expand upon their pop-up menu, serving a mix of Cuban and Mexican dishes like jackfruit cochinita pibil tacos dressed with habanero pickled onions and fresh salsa verde or bistec de palomilla made with Lion’s Mane mushrooms. The cubano on the menu is made with glazed seitan ham Trapani makes himself and jackfruit lechon. Ingredients and produce are sourced as locally as possible or come from small food producers.
“We want to change the perception around plant-based food,” Trapani says, who serves as the restaurant’s chef. “We never lead with the ‘V’ word [vegan] because people hear it and immediately think of the militant aspects of the movement, which turned everyone off. We don’t preach, we let the food speak for itself.”
During their Happy Seed pop-ups at A Mano in the Old Fourth Ward, it was meatless Monday, a concept already familiar to people scaling back on their weekly meat consumption. This, Trapani says, allowed people to try the food at Happy Seed without any preconceived notions around veganism. If people are eating up to 21 meals a week, he says, one of those can easily be vegan, whether it’s bean and vegetable tacos or a roasted Portabella mushroom sandwich. The couple quickly built a following that was pretty evenly split between vegans and non-vegans, and landed a residency at A Mano on Mondays during the height of the pandemic.
Both Marchese and Trapani are vegan, a lifestyle that first began seven years ago when Marchese worked as a nanny. She was also cooking for the family as their personal chef. When the mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, she requested dishes and foods with anti-inflammatory properties. Most of these meals ended up being vegan.
“I wasn’t vegan before, but this job, I was constantly learning and absorbing, and I was basically just a sponge every day,” Marchese says. “I would come home and cook for us. While we watched the woman I worked for go into remission, we also watched someone close to us lose their battle with cancer after a short diagnosis.”
She and Trapani at first followed a vegan diet for the health benefits it provided. But as they learned more about the benefits of veganism, the couple realized the lifestyle also positively impacted the environment and local and sustainable foodways.
In La Semilla, Marchese and Trapani are putting their past restaurant experiences and everything they’ve learned about vegan cooking into practice, tapping into the seasonality of local ingredients and the nearly year-long growing season Georgia enjoys. Trapani transforms recipes from Marchese’s grandmother into vegan renditions for La Semilla, while also taking inspiration for dishes from his travels throughout South America and Mexico.
A particular favorite from Marchese’s childhood on the menu are the croquetas de jamon made with potatoes. Eating these, she says, is like getting a hug from her grandmother. The chochoyotes (masa-based dumplings) are filled with corn puree. Trapani makes a corn stock from the cobs after shaving them for esquites (street corn), mixing the broth with coconut milk. The soup and dumplings are topped with hand-pressed, fried tortilla chunks and corn sofrito underneath. Squash empanadas are stuffed with whatever gourd in season and caramelized onions and garnished with pasilla salsa and vegan morita crema.
“The bistec de palomilla really showcases Reid’s culinary creativity and innovation,” Marchese says. “We source the Lion’s Mane mushrooms from Southern Cap Mushrooms at East Atlanta Village Farmers Market. He presses those really thin to make a classic version of the Cuban flank steak dish.”
The mushrooms are braised in a rich umami vegan beef stock. “It’s fun and also challenging for me to create vegan versions of these dishes,” says Trapani.
Dessert features a take on a banana split using caramelized plantains served with dairy-free vanilla ice cream and buñuelo topped with chocolate sauce. The Frituras de Calabaza (fried pumpkin fritters) is a favorite of Marchese’s grandmother, who grew up eating the fritters regularly in Cuba before immigrating to the United States. Trapani finishes the dessert with cajeta (caramel made of sweetened caramelized goat’s milk) and espresso sea salt.
With a zero food waste policy, unused ingredients are incorporated back into sauces and salsas for dishes or made into tinctures or syrups for cocktails. Most cocktails at La Semilla are riffs on classics, leaning into spirts like rum, mezcal, and tequila. The Elote en Vaso (or corn in a cup) sees mezcal, tequila, corn liqueur, and vermouth mixed with ancho reyes and a cilantro-lime oleo saccharum created from leftover ingredients from the kitchen. The Wheel, named for their cat, mixes horchata, reposado tequila, and aged rum with falernum, almond orgeat, and cinnamon served in a hurricane glass. Non-alcoholic drinks, wine, and beer are also available.
As with the food and drinks, the design at La Semilla is homey and comfortable, filled with personal touches, including family photos and memorabilia. The bar seats 12 people, with additional seating for 50 in the dining room and 22 on the covered patio. There’s even a tiki hut for groups of up to eight people.
“Our goal is to serve good food to people that means something to us. We don’t care if you’re vegan or not, we just want to meet you where you are,” says Marchese. “From the first time you walk in, we hope to plant a seed that changes your perception of what plant-based food can be. This restaurant is simply about feeding people.”
Take a look at the menu below:
Open Tuesday - Thursday, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 p.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 5 p.m to 9 p.m. Weekend brunch should begin in April.
780 Memorial Drive, Atlanta. lasemilla.kitchen.