Upland, the collaborative café from restaurateur Stephen Starr and chef Justin Smillie, opened in Miami Beach's tony SoFi neighborhood November 29.
This is the second Upland for Smillie and Starr, whose original is located in New York City. Starr also owns Steak 954 at the W Hotel Fort Lauderdale, Makoto and Le Zoo in the Bal Harbour Shops, and the Continental in South Beach.
Miami Beach restaurants are often too romantic or too trendy. Upland is a golden light at the end of the clichéd tunnel. The restaurant, located at 49 Collins Ave., basks in its own warm glow, reminiscent of a café in Paris. The interior by Roman & Williams is filled with copper accents. A small but inviting bar gives way to a dining room that's large yet intimate with warm earth tones. The focal point of the scene is the open kitchen, where Smillie was a major presence when Miami New Times was invited to dine.
The chef, who walks to Upland from his apartment in South Beach, plans to split his time between New York and Miami Beach. He says he'll concentrate on whichever location needs him most. The restaurant, open only a week, is already bustling with diners.
Some patrons, according to the chef, are instant regulars. "I see a lot of familiar faces of people from New York and the Hamptons." Smillie says the vibes of the two restaurants are the same. "We want this to be a jovial bistro where you can kick back and enjoy."
In a city where chefs come from around the globe to establish a presence, sometimes treating their restaurants like just another H&M store, Smillie wants Miamians to know Upland is different. For one, he points out, the bistro is not located inside a hotel. The chef also permanently relocated five Upland New York chefs to the Miami Beach outpost. "We're really trying to share our spirituality in a new city, and it's important that everyone understand we are here for real. We love the market. It took me 24 years to get here, and it will not feel like another cookie-cutter restaurant."
The Culinary Institute of America graduate, who has worked with industry giants such as Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Tom Coliccio, and Jonathan Waxman, says the belief comes down to one simple yet elegant phrase: "The mantra is that we want people to feel like we're lucky to have them, not that they're lucky to be here."
With that in mind, Upland serves inviting comfort food with a nod to rustic Italian. Ninety-five percent of the dishes are cooked in the oversize wood pizza oven or the adjoining coal oven. The goal, Smillie says, is not to do barbecue but to still have a hint of smoke. An example is the short rib for two. A darkly charred outside gives way to fall-off-the-bone meat on the inside. The dish, by the way, can easily be shared by four people, especially following a pizza or pasta. Prices might seem high, but each portion easily serves at least two people. Most dishes are presented on wood blocks in keeping with the casual, friendly vibe.
A gem salad is a fine starter to a long, pleasing meal. Here, romaine lettuce, cucumber, avocado, and ricotta salata are drizzled with walnut vinaigrette ($18).
Smillie says that at first he was worried about making doughs and pastas in Miami Beach after hearing about the extreme humidity. To combat it, he designed a climate-controlled room to ensure consistency. It pays off in the pizza dough, which is light and crisp.
Upland offers four pizzas, including a classic margherita ($17), a sausage and kale ($20), and 'nduja ($19). Choose the pistachio, made with fontina, mozzarella, and red onion ($19), for a blend of nutty, creamy, and sharp flavors.
The coal-roasted short rib for two ($78) is topped with celery and a sinus-clearing hit of shaved horseradish. It's an inspired kick to the smoky, rich oversize piece of meat presented to the table. Pair it with a side of baby artichokes ($14).
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Before you slip into a food coma, order the Italian ice, served inside a pink grapefruit shell and garnished with Campari zest ($10).
If you're wondering where to start, the chef suggests simply exploring the options. "The structure of the menu is Italian, so there's a starter, a pasta, and a middle course traditionally. But build your own experience. It's really a choose-your-own-adventure kind of a menu."
Upland is open for dinner Sunday through Thursday from 5:30 to 11 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 5:30 p.m. to midnight. Brunch is served Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., and lunch will be offered soon.