Upland – First Bite
Do you remember the super short-lived restaurant that was Manzanilla? Few do, but I did manage to dine there before it shuttered less than a year after it opened. I’d eaten at Dani Garcia’s Michelin-starred eatery in Marbella, but Manzanilla wasn’t all that. In fact, the food was pretty awful, which is always depressing when a talented chef is in the mix. But let’s not dwell on the past.
Especially when Stephen Starr opened such a breath of fresh air in its wake. While Manzanilla was dark and void of personality, Upland has a gorgeous glow to it. It’s a spacious, sunny spot that feels, well, very un-New York. Roman and Williams has done wonders to lighten things up, decking it out with green leather banquettes, glossy green lacquered ceilings, white oak paneling along the walls, and plenty of copper accents. At the back, there’s a wall lined with bottles of wine and glass jars filled with preserved lemons. The tables are draped with green & white gingham runners, which happen to match the servers aprons. There’s nothing formal or serious about the space, or the cooking, for that matter.
The menu features California cuisine, which is not something you find in Manhattan very often. (Only John Fraser’s Narcissa comes to mind.) And what exactly is California cuisine? Truth be told, it’s pretty vague and up for debate. Some say it’s fusion (a la Wolfgang Puck), others say it’s ingredient-driven cooking. I think most would agree that it centers around fresh, seasonal ingredients married in original ways. Justin Smillie’s version is a savory-sweet Pear Pizza with Pecan Pesto and Arugula, Beef Tartare with Black Trumpet Mushrooms and Puffed Farro, or an Upland Cioppino, brimming with shellfish. Partners Stephen Starr and Justin Smillie are so devoted to California cooking that they named the restaurant after the California town where Smillie was born.
Until just two year ago, Smillie was an under the radar chef who worked behind the scenes for Dan Silverman (The Standard Grill) and Jonathan Waxman (Barbuto). That is, until he stepped into the kitchen at Il Buco Alimentari E Vineria back in January 2012. There, Smillie drew attention not by razzle dazzling anyone, but instead, for letting his ingredients speak for themselves, and transporting diners to Italy in the process.
Smillie has a masterful way with pasta. He proved that at Il Buco Alimentari and he’s done it again at Upland. As far as I’m concerned, his homemade Pappardelle is this season’s best bowl of pasta. Perfectly al dente strands mingle with Kale, Spicy Sausage Ragu, and a pivotal and aromatic dose of fennel seeds, which sets is apart from the rest. It’s finished with generous shavings of parmigiano. The Estrella is another great example of Smillie’s obvious talent when it comes to noodles; a rich, yet beautifully balanced composition of Chicken Liver, tamed by Sherry, and scented with Rosemary and Sage. And then there’s Jonah Crab, tangled up with Spaghettini, Artichokes, & Chiles or Bucatini all’Amatriciana with Pancetta, Tomato & Pepperoncini.
If you didn’t notice from the list of ingredients, Smillie is fond of heat. He deploys it on pizza and pasta, and sneaks it into his Upland Cioppino (San Francisco stew) — a tasty melange of clams, mussels, shell-on shrimp, striped bass, and jonah crab, made all his own with the unique addition of gochujang, a pungent Korean condiment, and oodles of fresh herbs. So was an appetizer of Seared Robiola Cheese hidden beneath a salad of warm Mushrooms and Chicory leaves, anointed with an inspired Burnt Scallion Vinaigrette and a scattering of Marcona Almonds. But my favorite dish on the menu (aside from the pastas, of course) is the Lamb, roasted to an achingly tender medium rare. It’s arranged with Confit Carrots, Lettuce, and Dates, a delicious way to tug more sweetness from the meat.
Really, the only glaring miss was the Squash Blossom Pizza, which was too thick and chewy, with no real char, paved with a olives, chili (there’s that heat again), squash blossoms, and Straciatella cheese. No matter: Take solace in the Seared Octopus, scattered with arugula and sided by a sesame seed-paved Eggplant Caviar. Desserts are agreeable, but nothing to write home about. There’s a Chocolate Orange Semifreddo, arranged with slivers of fresh citrus, and a bland Cheesecake Brulee heaped with cranberries. I much preferred a zesty Yuzu Souffle, vibrantly accented with Kalamansi lime, Sour Cherry and Citrus Curd, and an even better Pomelo Grapefruit Salad with itty bitty meringues, Thai basil and Coconut Sorbet.
It’s no secret that everyone loves a new restaurant, which is why New Yorkers have descended on Upland making it feel like the buzzy, cool place to be. And there’s no denying that Upland feels sunnier than your average Manhattan joint. If you’re looking for a lift this winter, you might consider tucking into a shiny green banquette for a vibrant bowl of pasta and Smillie’s super seasonal and well balanced California cooking. Yes, there are a few wrinkles to iron out, but Upland did just open its doors a few weeks ago and it’s well on its way to becoming a neighborhood fixture.