December 1, 2014 | BITE: My Journal

Upland: Justin Smillie Works On It

Justin Smillie brings his legendary roasted shortrib to his new Upland fief.
Justin Smillie brings his legendary roasted shortrib to his new Upland fief.

            Upland was instantly hot. In this town that worships the new, it was not just the latest, but also a good-looking new home for the very amiable Justin Smillie. Like many obsessively migratory food lovers, I’d fallen for his food at Il Buco Alimentari. Most especially, I was haunted by memories of his Neanderthal slab of roasted short rib – wildly decked out with celery curls, toasted walnuts, poison- green Castelvetrano olives and slivers of fresh horseradish.

The amiable chef Justin Smillie is definitely smiley as he says hello to fans he knows from Il Buco.

           I don’t recall reading why Smillie left his small open three-star kitchen on Great Jones Street where that crusty wedge was the draw (at least for my crowd). I’ll guess he decided, or was persuaded, he was due for his own stage. Signing up with restaurateur Stephen Starr made that reality upscale. A restless commuter to our city with 500 seats in Buddakan and Morimoto near the Meatpacking District since 2006, and more recently, the charming Caffé Storico for cicchetti and Venetian airs at the Historical Society, Starr could afford the uptown lease, finance a Keith McNallyian golden glow behind a wall of bottles in a rich design by Roman and Williams, and provide a trained corporate team up front. (Disclosure: Starr agreed to be a $10,000 supporter of Citymeals Power Lunch for Women when I asked. We let men come to the lunch for $10,000. And I couldn’t help myself.) 

An end of autumn pizza featured squash blossoms, pear, Jalapeño and bright green olives.

           Named for the West Coast town Smillie grew up in, the place would feature twists on California food, the chef said, homage to his idols – Alice Waters, Jonathan Waxman, Jeremiah Tower. Indeed, Upland seemed good to go on my first visit -- contemporary, California-enamored-with-Italy.

There’s no charge for the warm loaf of egg-washed brioche with butter alongside.

           A wave of noise strikes as you enter from an inner vestibule lined with big jars of Moroccan preserved lemons. The bar is ringed with eaters, leather booths circle the room. Dark checked linen runners, matching the waiters’ aprons, run the length of each table. There are votives and, eventually – a board bearing house-baked bread, shiny from its egg wash.

I’m not sure exactly when the Supreme Court ruled that octopus must appear on every menu.

           The menu is different and familiar: the inevitable octopus with fingerlings, an almost-Caesar, a crackling pork chop with lightly pickled persimmons. The usual jazz, with some surprising Smillieisms, like the marvelous wide, ridged estrella pasta with chicken livers and sherry, and a pizza with stracciatella and ‘nduja – the fiery, spreadable pork sausage from Calabria. And, of course, the iconic roasted short rib for two, which would be his own except that Il Buco has also claimed ownership and still serves it. Both are priced at $59. Il Buco’s was considerably bigger the week Upland opened.

I asked for my chicken livers rare, impossible, apparently, but here’s the estrella everyone talks about.

           I liked Upland on my first visit in a month ago. It was partly the endearing waiter with his winning naiveté. It was definitely the sommelier, aglow with enthusiasm, persuading my wine-snob pals to try a surprisingly likeable $45 Portuguese red -- Quinta do Passadouro – adding to the welcome.

Eager to please, L2O veteran Chantelle Pabros put together a wine list with many bottles under $50.

           I’m not a fan of soft, ballooning Neapolitan-style pizza, but I liked warming up for dinner with a cut of the big oval pie loaded with squash blossoms, olives and scattered rings of chile heat on stracciatella cheese. The beef tartare arrived in a disc dotted with puffed faro longside black trumpet mushrooms and an egg to smash into it.

Whether it’s Wilshire Boulevard fish stew or Upland Cioppino, it’s crowned with a giant prawn.

           I’m not sure why the bowl of clams and mussels in the shell, a large shrimp, swordfish belly and gochujang – the powerful fermented Korean condiment  -- would be listed as “Wilshire Boulevard” fish stew. A later version with striped bass and tendrils of crab thickening the broth arrives as “Upland Cioppino.”

Crispy deep-fried hen of the wood mushroom comes in a cluster to drag through melted goat cheese.

           That evening, I discover the joy of the chef’s roasted lamb, large chunks, very rare, on a platter with confit’d whole carrots, dates and leaves of lettuce -- California indeed. A lot of imagination, though not a lot of meat for $36. On another night, exceptionally moist and juicy cuts of chicken sit in a peppercorn-mustard sauce with cranberry beans, flageolets, late-harvest cherry tomatoes, and sprigs of water arugula on top.  (I took the leftovers home to slice on my boring office salad.)

Tonight’s roasted chicken with beans in a tarragon mustard sauce is a hit at our table.

           One of my pals orders the “crackling pork chop.” I suggest she ask for it “rare” since some pork chops I’ve been served lately, cooked “medium rare,” were tough and parched. The waiter either misunderstands or fails to convey the order and it isn’t rare, but it’s juicy and not dry at all. With what I imagine is Smillie trying to do something no one else is doing, the pork came with giant red Jimmy Nardello peppers and lightly pickled persimmons. A point for that too.

Crackling pork chop gets topped big red peppers, charred onions and lightly pickled persimmon.

            I can’t always get my companions to order what I want to taste. The bucatini alla carbonara is lukewarm and intensely salty on my first try – the intensity of aged parmesan, it seemed, and not enough broth -- but it is better ten days later. 

On an earlier visit, the bucatini carbonara was not hot enough and too reduced but tonight it’s perfect.

           Raves for the chilled farro noodles with sea urchin and scallion prompt me to choose that rather than fettuccine with Nantucket sea scallops one evening. As an uni maniac, I expect to be wowed, but the intensity of added colatura di alici –the essence of anchovy distilled to a syrup -- puts me off. More than half goes back to the kitchen. No one asks why.

This semifreddo seems a bit fancy for the country feel of the food. But my friends love it.

           I don’t like the cocoa nibs on the chocolate-orange semi freddo, but my pal loves the stubbly accent. I find the cinnamon sugared doughnuts overly sugared. My friends think I’m crazy. For me, the yuzu soufflé, even with tangy kalamansi and citrus curd, isn’t really tart enough, and I want more sour cherries at the bottom.

The donuts are just donuts with lots of sugar and no dipping sauce.

           I admire the look of the sheep’s milk cheesecake brûlée in a boa of cranberries with orange peel tucked inside, served in a black bowl. But hey, it’s autumn. Where are the apples?

The waiters have to bend down and lean in out of the noise field to get your order.

           On a last recent visit, my two companions start the evening by going out to greet Justin in the kitchen. So, it’s no surprise when the waiter arrives with a gift from the chef, the Little Gem Salad. “Queens farm lettuces with almonds, pears and Chardonnay vinaigrette,” the waiter says, dishing it out.  I had meant to order it. Next time I probably will.

On a second try the $29 white truffle pizza with 24 month old Parmesan has some actual truffle taste.

           It is my second go at the $29 white truffle pizza. This time the all-over slices have real truffle flavor as well as a scent. I still think the pie itself needs more cheese. The goat cheese under the crisp-fried mushroom is also too scanty. Some portions seem small. But the bucatini carbonara is properly dressed. And the prices are the same: starters $13 to $21, pastas $16 to $23, entrees $30 to $36.

The little gem lettuce salads with greens from Queens farms, almonds and pear is a must.

           Of course, we have to have the short rib. It looks like the chef has taken to heart a recent online essay at Grub Street, asking “Who owns a restaurant’s signature dish – the restaurant or the chef?” Smillie has given the dish a new look: instead of burying the beef in its unique celery-walnut-horseradish furbelow, he’s left the caramelized mahogany brick unadorned and piled the trimmings alongside. It looks strange. Defiant. An orphan of the storm. But it tastes as rich andUpland is harder to book every day etc meaty as ever.

Debate over who owns the short rib dish Smillie invented at Il Buco inspired the chef to a redesign.

           Upland is harder to book every day. Youthful cognoscenti troop in as tables turn. I watch the couples sipping cocktails and checking their phones in the shadows across the way, wondering what they will tell their friends or Yelp or whomever they confide in.

           I’m still discovering what I like at Upland and, it occurs to me, maybe Justin is trying to find his best way too.

345 Park Avenue, entrance on 26th Street just east of Park.
212 686 1006. Dinner Monday to Saturday 5 pm to 11 pm. Sunday to 10 pm.


Photos may not be used without permission of Gael Greene. Copyright 2014. All rights reserved.

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