The story: The Starr Restaurant Group, which has brought splashy restaurants to Manhattan like Morimoto and Buddakan, opened Upland on Park Avenue South, featuring a menu designed by California native Chef Justin Smillie, who first got attention as executive chef at Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria.
Why I went: While vacationing in New York, I met up with fellow Bay Area food blogger Christina of East Bay Dish, who also happened to be in town at the same time. The restaurant we initially planned to visit for lunch was closed because of a special “filming” (that can happen with big-name restaurants in New York), so we ended up at Upland, which was nearby and also on my list of restaurants to try. Chef Smillie’s California take on dishes turned out to provide a nice familiarity for us coming from the Bay Area.
The vibe: The huge restaurant with a large bar up front and walls filled with backlit bottles and jars makes a splashy welcome that’s like a summer country home. Since it’s off Park Avenue South, there’s a bit of the high-end vibe, and most of the lunch crowd seemed a bit like business lunches, except for the few guys who walked in casually dressed dining at the bar.
The booze: There’s an extensive specialty cocktails and wine list, but both Christina and I skipped the alcohol for our lunch. I simply had an iced tea, so I can’t really speak about the booze here. But like I said, the bar looked liked a friendly place to get a meal and drinks.
The menu: Upland is named after the San Bernardino County town where Smillie grew up, and the menu reflects a California touch with fresh ingredients with Japanese and Mexican touches. It’s primarily reflective of Italian cuisine, with pastas and wood-fired pizzas, which is why we had to try the ‘nduja pizza ($19) made with the special pork spread and stracciatella cheese and passata tomato sauce.
Our starters really showcased the California influences in a refined way, with a lovely fluke crudo ($21) that was beautifully plated with the raw fluke spotted with red currants, jalapeno, shiso and olio verde. I liked the warming heat from the jalapeno, but felt the aggressive olio verde maybe overshadowed the fish. A little gem salad ($18) looked like it was snowed on by fluffy shaved ricotta salata, and it was tasty with a walnut vinaigrette and filled with avocado and cucumber.
My favorite dish: Both Christina and I were wowed by the ‘nduja pizza, which had the typical blistered edges but made in an oblong shape. The quarter-sized slices were savory from the ‘nduja, which provided the burst of flavor that was balanced by the stracciatella and the pleasing tomato sauce that wasn’t too sweet or too tart but just right.
The last bite: Upland is a polished restaurant with good service and a splashy space that will impress your friends when you dine here. The price is on the high end, but it reflects the quality of the ingredients and the sophistication of the plating by Chef Smillie. It’s big city dining that represents the interchange of talents between the two coasts.
The rating: 3 out of 4 camera snaps
The deets: Upland, 345 Park Avenue South, New York. PH: 212.686.1006. Open daily for weekday lunch and weekend brunch, and dinner daily from 5 p.m. Reservations, major credit cards accepted. www.uplandnyc.com
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