Triumphant Californian Cuisine Well Worth the Hype
Having cut my teeth dining in the steakhouses and speakeasies of Chicago, Californian cuisine–that blend of Chinese, Japanese, Mexican, French, and Italian fusion with the state’s bounty of produce–always seemed antithetical to my interests. How could a style of cooking that prioritized lean meats and low saturated fat compete with the glories of butter and beef, with the classic techniques and hallowed recipes too good to fuse. Alice Waters and Wolfgang Puck hardly had my mouth watering over in the Midwest, my stomach instead growling for the joys of Taylor Street and the goliaths of the East Coast. To me, the modern farm to table movement encompassed the one positive of California cuisine, and I felt safe ignoring the rest.
Paradoxically, it was in NYC of all places that Californian cuisine finally commanded my attention (and won the affection of my palate). Upland, chef Justin Smillie and restaurateur Stephen Starr’s Park Avenue brasserie, has remained wildly popular and perpetually packed since opening last fall. Smillie, who won three New York Times stars for his work at Il Buco Alimentari, drew inspiration from his childhood in San Bernardino County when opening his dream restaurant. Partnering with the Philadelphia-based Starr, he translated the familiar flavors and flair of California into an effortlessly elegant, East Coast setting. The space boasts an alluring, warm glow and sweeping windows that draw diners in from the street. Rich notes of wood, checkered wool tablecloths, and rows of jars filled with plump, bright lemons are at once natural but polished. A large, well-appointed bar buzzes with activity (and guests eager to snag a table) but is placed far enough from the dining room to keep the mood subdued.
Smillie’s menu does showcase some of the usual suspects–like three seasonal varieties of sourdough crust pizza and an heirloom tomato salad. However, his food has an undercurrent of Italian sensibility, with dishes like grilled veal ribs with chickpeas, bucatini cacio e pepe, and a slow roasted porcelet with tomatillo mostarda melding Californian ingredients with more comforting and satisfying ingredients. Cocktails are varied and pleasantly fruit forward, with a similarly vast selection of beers and wines by the glass. Sake, cider, and an expansive list of sparkling options join a list of white and red centered in California but featuring just as many French wines. Dining is à la carte, with appetizers running $15-$20, pastas around $20, and entrees each above $30.
The service at Upland was cheery yet insincere–it’s the sort of place where you learn quickly to rely on the busboys for anything you need. I won’t fault the initiative of the waiter and manager who, in two separate incidents, asked if I’d like another drink just moments after ordering one with my designated waitress. However, the restaurant needs to decide if its service is going to be crowdsourced at all times or left to an individual, as I feel I got the worst of both. Nonetheless, buoyed by the attractiveness of the restaurant’s design, I rued my waitress’s absence a bit less than normal.
As I quickly realized though, I wouldn’t mind if PETA themselves were taking orders and delivering food because Smillie truly is that talented. An opening bread course demonstrated the mingling of simplicity and excellence of execution that would come to mark the meal. The loaf, a housemade potato bread, boasted no frills or fillings despite a crystalline sprinkling of salt along its top. It didn’t need to. The audibly crunchy, well crisped exterior broke apart o reveal a piping hot and slightly sweet interior that reduced the herbed butter to a dripping, delightful puddle in mere moments. It’s loaves like this that make every other restaurant just look lazy. How could you deny diners such a simple pleasure? Then again, not every restaurants boasts a pastry chef like Sebastien Rouxel, formerly of Per Se.
The real scope of the kitchen’s creativity was pronounced with my first course, the popular whole crispy mushroom. In what I affectionately refer to as the “blooming onion” of mushrooms, a huge hen of the woods mushroom is fried to an ethereally crunchy golden brown and served with a squeeze of lemon atop a schmear of Cloumage cheese (think baked ricotta). At $18, it’s no doubt a pricy mushroom yet easily shared by even three or four people. Tackling it alone certainly looked daunting, but I loved every morsel. Impeccably seasoned and complemented wonderfully by the tangy cheese and acid of the citrus, the dish, above all, was a textural triumph. While the smaller caps of the mushroom crackled on the palate, the stalks provided a heartier and earthier crunch. Smillie has a true winner here, something that really blindsided me when it came to the table but is familiar and fun enough to captivate any diner.
My pasta course, estrella with chicken liver, sherry, rosemary, and sage, was probably the weak point of the meal, but only because it was average rather than exceptional. The star-shaped noodles had a pleasant heft and chew to them (and shaved Parmigiano is never a bad thing). The sauce, which used the chicken liver as the base for a sort of Bolognese, was fine but lacked the meaty intensity I love about the liver. It all seemed a little diluted, and I was left with a bowl of (excellent) noodles in desperate search of a sauce to pull them all together.
I know my title of best steak in NYC is ever shifting, with both the Breslin and Minetta Tavern making recent claims to the title. Upland’s is certainly in the running–and it might even be the winner. A skirt steak with romesco and bunching onions sounded tempting, but, as is tradition now, I took on Smillie’s grilled 40-day dry-aged ribeye for two. Weighing in at 28 oz., the steak came separated from its bone, a nice touch that ensured quite a bit more meat for the $87 price tag. It also came buried under an unattractive nest of pole beans, sweet corno di toro peppers, and scapes–the flower stalks of garlic plants. Yet, while I had to move the accompaniments off of the ribeye, I soon found myself piling them into my mouth. Impeccably seasoned, hearty, and smacking of garlic, the vegetables were a rare treat and made with the sort of care that makes one forget all about potatoes. So, can a Californian cook a steak in the home of the Delmonico? Upland’s ribeye boasted a wonderful seared crust and a blushing red center. A nice touch of salt heralded in the funky, deeply meaty note of the dry-age. At the same time, a punch of garlic added an undertone of spice that broke through the richness. Smillie’s steak is good. It’s not as much of a spectacle as some of the côte de bœufs in town, but the flavor is there and the price is right for an elegantly simple cut of beef.
With food big on flavor but undoubtedly in the vibrant, Californian mold, Upland won me over to the Golden State’s style of cooking. While the pasta course was rather average, the mushroom and steak preparations rank among the best dishes in city. More impressive, they shone the excellence of their technique rather than any flourish of luxury ingredients. While the service, as mentioned, could be better, I don’t think it will prove a sticking for most diners given the beauty of the space and quality of the kitchen. Striking and accessible but with surprising depth, Upland shows California has something to teach New Yorkers about food.
Date Visited: 12/5/15