Certain elements of the menu at chef Justin Smillie's sweeping new Flatiron restaurant, Upland, feel familiar.
There are those salty, crunchy, can't-stop-eating-them fried artichokes ($13) dusted in Meyer lemon powder, similar to one of his greatest hits at Il Buco Alimentari. Same goes for the house-made ricotta ($16), served here with boquerones and cucumber.
But there's no denying that Upland, a partnership with restaurateur Stephen Starr, has a distinctly Californian spin. For one, it's named for the town in San Bernardino county where the chef grew up. And although most of his cooking background is firmly in the Italian family (including a stint at Barbuto) Smillie is excited about getting back to his roots—and stepping out past the boot.
Clockwise from upper left: The mushroom salad, the pappardelle, the nduja pizza and the restaurant's wine wall
"I wanted a slightly broader palate," he says. "If I want to sneak in an Asian ingredient here or there, or smoke some chiles, I can do that here, as a nod to California's Mexican food."
The restaurant itself is bathed in a Golden State glow. There's an impressive open-shelved, copper-accented bar at the front, while the rest of the massive space draws warmth from shelves lined with preserved lemons and blue-and-white checked tablecloths.
Overall, the menu leans more Italian than Californian. Smillie's pizza, of which there are three, has a thicker crust than Neapolitan; he's making it with a sourdough starter and wanted a little more weight. That extra bite of bread works well in the nduja pie ($19), dotted with mounds of the pork sausage and creamy stracciatella cheese. You should absolutely spread the nduja across the top of your entire slice before eating it—why wouldn't you want every bite to have that spice and smoke?
The yuzu souffle | Chef Justin Smillie
Pastas aren't necessarily traditional but are rich and comforting, from thick strips of pappardelle napped with sausage ragù and kale ($18) and wisps of Parmesan, to star-shaped estrella noodles laced with chicken livers ($16), sherry, rosemary and sage. The sauce barely tastes of liver—which Smillie attributes to his chopping the liver way, way down before it's cooked. Instead, it tasted like one of the most luxurious meat sauces you could imagine.
A few of the dishes are pure West Coast, such as a crisp-skinned roasted Montauk bass served with an almost brothy avocado purée, crunchy discs of baby fennel and a squeeze of Meyer lemon ($33). It's Smillie's nod to early California cuisine at the likes of Chez Panisse; we wouldn't be surprised to see the bright combination on the menus at San Francisco's Delfina or Flour + Water today.
Of Upland, Smillie says, "I wanted a bigger space, a more grown-up space. I like the challenge of cooking in a new neighborhood."
Given the crowds that are already flocking there, we think the next Gold Rush may be upon us.
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