April 21, 2017
By Carla Torres | March 14, 2017 | Food & Drink
At New York transplant Upland, Stephen Starr and Chef Justin Smillie are making Miamians swoon over classic California cuisine, the next blooming onion, and sweet dreamsicles.
Crispy duck wings are doused in lemon, olive oil, and yuzu kasha.
It’s nearly impossible to walk by Upland in the heart of the quaint South of Fifth neighborhood and not be lured inside. A warm, enchanting glow akin to Miami at dusk draws you in, as the smell of wood with a hint of citrus permeates the copper-clad dining room bedecked with gargantuan jars of preserved lemons. On a Friday night, every table in the 250-seat restaurant is occupied. Zak the Baker eats pistachio-topped pizza with the same hands he uses to make his sourdough. DJ Irie snaps a photo before cutting into a coal-roasted short rib for two crowned with Castelvetrano olives, walnuts, and horseradish. Even Karolina Kurkova, Courtney Love, and Diplo have stopped by. But then, would you expect anything less from a Stephen Starr restaurant helmed by a nationally acclaimed chef?
“It was time to bring Upland back to its palm tree roots,” says chef Justin Smillie, who honed his culinary skills working under greats like Jonathan Waxman at Barbuto and Danny Meyer at Gramercy Tavern. A nod to his hometown of Upland, California, the Golden State-inspired eatery opened its first outpost in New York City, where Pete Wells, food critic for The New York Times, dubbed Smillie a “vegetable sage” and “pasta savant”— labels best evidenced by the chef’s perfectly al dente and peppery bucatini cacio e pepe. “That and the carbonara have been with me for 14 years, since Barbuto,” Smillie says, which must be why he’s perfected them and the short rib that goes wherever he goes. Or the crispy and tangy duck wings searing with heat that beckon for the bones to be bared of every last shred of meat.
Upland’s pistachio pizza and crispy hen of the woods mushroom are just a few of the knockout dishes at Stephen Starr’s newest eatery.
“California cuisine is really a melting pot,” notes the chef. “Upland touches on all those parts while sticking to my philosophy of freshness and preserving the harvest.” Exhibit A: the Miami-centric, wood-fired Florida prawns erupting with olive oil and lemon. There’s also the coal-roasted salmon sitting over a bed of farro, bursting with acid by way of Florida grapefruits and pickled beets. “[The salmon] and the branzino are at the top,” Smillie says of the smoked and roasted European sea bass whirling in fennel leek vinaigrette. Whatever you do, don’t forget to order the whole crispy hen of the woods mushroom, paired with an herb Cloumage that’s the equivalent of ricotta tzatziki.
“It’s our generation’s blooming onion,” he says, clarifying why every party orders one (or two). No California-style meal would be complete without fine wine, and Upland’s cellar boasts plenty for oenophiles to discover, from the Golden State to Italy and France. Dessert, too, dazzles with a moist and dense carrot cake topped with cinnamon ice cream; pink grapefruit garnished with Campari zest; and chocolate mousse dusted with fennel pollen. None are as nostalgic, however, as Upland’s blood orange and vanilla twist Dreamsicle, a grown-up version of the childhood classic. 49 Collins Ave., Miami Beach, 305-602-9998
PHOTOGRAPHY BY GARY JAMES