Pete Wells begins his two-star review this week with the statement all New York City restaurateurs wish to hear the critic remark of their restaurant: “’Go to Upland’ is my current answer to anybody who asks for a good new place to eat in Manhattan. It will probably remain my answer for some time.”
It’s no wonder, too, as Upland is the latest venture from restaurateur Steven Starr, who, Wells reminds his readers, “has opened jostling, thumping, nightclub-slash-restaurants such as Morimoto and Buddakan, as well as intimate stages for chefs like Serpico in Philadelphia.” The kitchen is led by “Justin Smillie, whose intensely flavorful spins on Italian cuisine at Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria won him national notice.” Although the critic has recently reviewed restaurants that missed the mark (and therefore stars) from well-known industry players, this one hits the culinary nail on the head for Wells.
He was into the pizzas (“like the very good one with pears, arugula and soft stracciatella cheese underscored by aged balsamic and a pesto that crunches with chopped pecans”), a number of the pastas (like the firm and well-peppered bucatini slick with tangy pecorino or the long, star-shaped tubes called estrella tossed with a just-right sauté of chicken livers with rosemary and sage… Either way, they’re further confirmation that Mr. Smillie is one of the city’s pasta savants”), and almost everything else on the extensive menu (“Celery root never struck me as a showstopper, exactly, until I tasted the one at Upland… Everybody at my table always wanted to try his deep-fried hen-of-the-woods mushroom, and everybody was always happy swiping it in herbed Cloumage… a main course of Tasmanian sea trout was made memorable by its vegetable side, a section of sweet, ivory-colored cone cabbage permeated by smoke… The pork chop… was a sensation”).
Almost (but not quite) everything pleased the restaurant critic, though only a few missteps seeming important enough for him to include in his musings. He pointed to just a few dishes that seemed to be lacking the culinary magic found in their siblings, like “Chilled and decidedly al dente farro spaghetti seemed like an odd choice for a cold sea urchin sauce… Wads of spicy grated radish smothered the sweetness of just-shucked raw scallops. And the short rib with walnuts and unruly curls of shaved celery that was roasted on a rotisserie at Il Buco Alimentari hasn’t fully acclimated to being cooked in an oven on East 26th Street.” Still, before listing these minor infringements, he prefaces them with the allowance that Smillie’s “menu rambles a bit, and it’s no surprise that not all of the 30 or so dishes glide with swanlike grace.” Luckily, according to Wells, most of the chef’s quantity is quality.
He has warm words for the wine cellar and for the sommelier, Chantelle Pabros, as well, because “She has assembled one of the most accessible, least dogmatic lists in town, with dozens of bottles under $50, as if that were the way all wine lists worked.” He’s also charmed by the ambiance of the space, lent by the shelves of jars of preserved lemons that line the walls of the space, as “When their marmalade glow hits the copper trim around the dining room, it gives off a light warmer than anything I’ve seen in a restaurant before.” So, while we hunker down for more blustery weather here in New York, perhaps we should take Wells’ advice and bask in the warm glow of Upland.