With Stephen Starr's Midas-like touch, Upland is on track to become a new golden, glimmering node in the New York dining scene. Yet for all of its trendiness and popularity du jour, there is a level of sophistication in the cuisine and a depth of hospitality in the service that makes Upland more than just the first destination for a nightlife-geared crowd.
A few weeks ago, I made a reservation for Upland just two weeks in advance. Now, it's almost impossible to make a reservation less than a month in advance, unless I am willing to sit by my phone and wait for the next available time to open up, or spend an hour or more at the bar to be seated as a walk-in. Yet for all of its hype, Upland is one of the rare, of-the-moment restaurants that deserves a bit of acclaim.
The one identifiable flaw in the meal regrettably came at the beginning, as the front of house and hostess table was less than competent, mistakenly changing our reservation without our knowledge, and then having us wait over 30 minutes to be seated at a two-top by the bar. Fortunately for Upland, the management and waitresses are incredibly lovely and far more understanding than those running the front of the house on a busy Wednesday evening. As soon as we were seated, the manager graciously came over and offered to bring us a couple of drinks and appetizers on the house, and our waitress was also so incredibly polite and good-natured, it made the incompetency of the hostesses fade to the background. This is the type of management that understands hospitality as something kind happening for you, rather than just happening to you. If only Upland had the front of house staff up to the par of the rest of its operation, it would be hard to find something wrong with the service.
The meal itself was nothing short of what you would expect from Justin Smillie, with the pastas and vegetables executed deftly. The Slow Roasted Celeriac with sea salt and a black truffle butter that folds and melts before your eyes into the soft root is an absolute must, as is the Hamachi Crudo with green apple, jicama, and sunchokes in a creamy, citrusy broth that anyone could just drink up. While the Seared Brussels Sprouts with a meyer lemon, oregano, and chili dressing was less successful in this California-oriented menu, the Torpedo Beets with a robiola and white choclate puree topped with a nutty mixture of seeds could convert anyone into a beet fan. The creaminess of the robiola and white chocolate took on a punginess almost like goat cheese, but significantly less offensive.
For our entrees, the Estrella pasta has to be a favorite, with chicken liver, sherry, rosemary, and sage brightening up the plate. It's all in a large enough portion to make those who love to eat very, very happy. The Whole Grilled Branzino moistened with a citrus vinaigrette and topped with a kitchen's worth of scallions was cooked well, although came across as generally ordinary. Better entrees are the Slow Cooked Lamb Neck with baby carrots, soft herbs, and polenta, and the Crackling Porcelet with peppers, charred onions, and a unique addition of persimmon.
Ultimately, for a little taste of California gold, Upland is the closest thing New York has to offer, other than a ticket from JFK to LAX.
Rarely, upon later visits to a restaurant do I find that I need to dramatically update my review. Never have I found that I need to reassess a restaurant's hospitality less than a month after my first visit. But Upland is clearly no ordinary restaurant with no ordinary ambitions.
A few days after I posted my original review, I was kindly invited back to Upland by the Director of New Restaurant Openings at STARR Restaurants. After another visit to Upland last night, I've found that what was lacking in the front of house has been swiftly overhauled. Our table saw two or three staff members checking in on our meal (without seeming remotely helicopter-ish!), and one hostess seemed so thoughtful and concerned about the quality of our dinner at the end of the night, asking my party genuine questions as we waited for our coats, that I feared for a moment that my face belied a much happier impression.
Because the truth about Upland is that even with its occasional ups and downs and swings and misses, it is a superb restaurant. For my most recent meal, I added the Burrata with pungent, salty bites of trout caviar and a pile of crispy, oniony flavored leeks, and the Beef Tartare with black trumpet mushrooms, puffed crispy farro, anchovy, and egg yolk to our appetizer courses. Both were perfect without taking themselves too seriously. In addition to the Estrella, which I now crave regularly, I managed to try the Bucatini Cacio e Pepe with creamy pecorino romano and sharp black pepper. It's possibly better than what Justin Smilie was putting together at Il Buco. Possibly. Either way, it's just further proof that Upland is in the running for some of the city's best pasta dishes.
Ultimately, I'm updating this review to say that there are scarce things in life I give extra chances to. Green tea boba, raw tomatoes, and chevre are a lucky few. And now Upland has ingratiated itself into the mix. So for anyone looking for a new restaurant to try: go to Upland. And then go to Upland again. It's a restaurant that has not stopped moving up.
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