An Early Taste of Justin Smillie's California Cooking at Upland
Upland, the California town where chef Justin Smillie grew up, is a picturesque little Los Angeles suburb nestled at the base of the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. Far removed from the Hollywood Hills and Venice Beach, strip-mall chain restaurants decisively outnumber chef-driven concepts here, but Upland is cloaked in that easy California attitude that comes with enjoying average temperatures in the 70s in the middle of winter.
It is from this town that Smillie's new restaurant, opened with Stephen Starr's restaurant group, derives its name, though Upland (345 Park Avenue South, 212-686-1006) is certainly not channeling strip-mall chains.
Rather, Smillie draws from that type of California cuisine perfected by chefs like Wolfgang Puck -- built on a loosely Italian base (there are pizzas and pastas on the menu), dishes incorporate Asian flavors and plenty of seafood and produce. See the pear pizza, which comes topped with a field's worth of arugula plus balsamic and stracciatella. Or the crispy artichokes plated with lemon powder. Or the two-minute tuna, a cheeky throwback to the days of ubiquitous seared-tuna salads. Here, it comes with dandelion greens and pickled onions.
There are also distinctive New York touches -- the 'nduja pizza, for instance, is topped with the spicy soft sausage that's been making its way onto menus for the last couple of years.
Before Smillie came here, you may recall, he was turning out Italian fare at Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria. He also created a spectacular beef tartare, a redux of which is on offer at Upland and should absolutely be the start to your meal (along with a crisp Italian sour, from the classics-rooted cocktail list). Smillie seeds this version with puffed farro, which adds light crunch to a silken meat made creamy by egg yolk and pungent by anchovy.
You should dabble in the chef's pasta section, too -- our server was correct in his endorsement of the pappardelle with spicy ragu; it outshined the spaghettini dotted with fresno chile and jonah crab, especially because the crab was chopped so finely, it was difficult to detect. We regretted not ordering the spaghetti, which gets you a nest of cold farro noodles and uni.
The entree section covers all of its protein bases, though if you're a party of two, you'll likely be guided toward the short rib for two. Crusted in black peppercorn, dusted with horseradish, and supplemented by Castelvetrano olives, it's a nice match of peppery and briny flavors, but the meat itself falls flat, perhaps because it doesn't have that same melty texture we've all become accustomed to when it comes to short rib (this one is roasted instead of braised). Be forewarned that it's also a lot of food -- if you're aggressive with pizzas, appetizers, and pastas (we were), you might find it too much. Better to save room for dessert, where you'll find a surprising number of fruit-centric sweets that are as palate-cleansing as they are decadent.
As for the space itself, before this address became home to Upland, it housed the cavernous Spanish restaurant Manzanilla. Beyond unchangeable elements of that place, like the tall ceilings, the dining room has been scrubbed of most remnants of its predecessor. It's now bright and warmly lit. Preserved lemons in jars line shelves on the back wall, along with bottles of wine from a surprisingly international list for a California-themed restaurant. (Though how many New Yorkers are California wine fanatics? Probably not enough to sustain a heavily Napa- and Sonoma-based list.) The best seats in the house are the intimate round booths, from which you can gaze back into the semi-open kitchen.
Upland is open for dinner nightly; brunch and lunch are coming soon.
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