Stephen Starr knows how to put diners at ease so they can relax and enjoy the show. The man responsible for Makoto, the Continental, and Le Zoo has a new Miami Beach eatery, Upland. Located south of Fifth Street, it is arguably his most comfortable place yet. Indeed, the modus operandi is "to make guests feel like [the restaurant is] lucky to have them, not that they're lucky to be here," explains Upland's top toque, Justin Smillie.
Before linking arms with Starr to open the original Upland in Manhattan two years ago, Smillie earned accolades for his take on Italian cuisine at the popular Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria. Prior to that, he spent six years training under the venerable Jonathan Waxman, first at Washington Park and later at Barbuto in the West Village. Smillie says Upland was a chance for him to break away from strictly Italian fare and prepare food that reflects his upbringing and travels.
The eatery's name refers to the chef's hometown in San Bernardino County, California. And if you're wondering why illuminated jars of preserved lemons line the perimeter of the restaurant, it's because Upland was once a rural town whose claim to fame was its citrus fruits and grapes. The jars cast a warm glow over the room, which is both spacious and cozy. This is quintessentially New York.
Smillie began his career cooking over open fires, and Upland boasts both coal- and wood-burning ovens. Four pies are listed on the menu. This reviewer opted for the one with a white béchamel base, ricotta cheese, dehydrated granulated garlic, and broccoli. The crust was nice but was weighed down by too much olive oil. And the broccoli was soggy rather than crisp.
Two years ago in his two-star review of Manhattan's Upland, New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells dubbed Smillie a "vegetable sage" and raved about the chef's deep-fried hen-of-the-woods mushroom. It's served with an herbed Cloumage, similar to ricotta. Smillie calls it a "happy, crispy, and cheesy" dish. He's right; it's all of those things. Also good are his artichoke petals preserved in olive oil.
On the lighter side is the little gem salad, tossed with avocado, cucumber, ricotta salata, and a walnut vinaigrette. "California sunshine on a plate" is how Smillie describes the starter; he says he has enjoyed this salad at virtually every family dinner throughout his life. It's always thrilling when a salad can elicit so much glee, and this one at Upland does just that.
In his review, Wells also referred to Smillie as "one of the city's pasta savants," but the Miami Upland's bucatini alla carbonara was a major letdown on a recent visit. The sauce was dull and failed to cling to the pasta, which should've been cooked al dente but wasn't. As a longtime fan of the chef's pastas at Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria, this reviewer was particularly disappointed.
Redemption, however, comes via the smoked roast branzino for two. The wild fish is brined for three hours and slathered in a mixture of green chilies, sugar, smoked salt, and a secret spice blend. It's then roasted over high heat until it becomes ultracrisp and the flesh falls off the bone. There's no denying this branzino is impeccably fresh and bursting with a multitude of delicious flavors. Just one look at it, and you can't help but salivate. It's scrumptious.
Then there's the Creekstone Farms skirt steak proffered alongside a romesco sauce and bunching onions. It's essentially a chewy hunk of fat with no evidence of the expected juicy meat. Why, oh, why?
Upland Miami recommends diners share everything in order to try as much as possible, and dessert is always a great excuse to experiment. Though the triple chocolate cake resembles the mediocre boxed stuff you used to enjoy as a kid, the carrot cake with cinnamon cream and candied walnuts is one of the best in town. It's remarkably light yet assertive, and the flavor of the carrots shines. Another winner is pecan pie cheesecake with the requisite graham cracker crust. And finally, there's no better way to end the evening than with an order of refreshing grapefruit-flavored Italian ice nestled inside a pink grapefruit shell and garnished with orange zest soaked in Campari.
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Throughout the meal, service was flawless. At the mention of a hen-of-the-woods mushroom being served lukewarm, three staff members apologized and quickly delivered a replacement, no questions asked. What's more, they brought out a little gem salad on the house.
Being a guest of Stephen Starr is a treat, and a quick survey of the room indicated other diners also felt well taken care of. Miami could certainly use more convivial and unpretentious bistros such as Upland; however, it's difficult to get truly excited about a restaurant where half the dishes are merely mediocre. Still, when all is said and done, this is a Starr-and-Smillie production, and the chances of improvement are high.
49 Collins Ave., Miami Beach; 305-602-9998; uplandmiami.com. Lunch Monday through Friday noon to 3 p.m.; dinner Sunday through Thursday 5:30 to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 p.m. to midnight; brunch Saturday and Sunday 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Broccoli pizza $19
Hen-of-the-woods mushroom $22
Little gem salad $18
Bucatini alla carbonara $22
Roast branzino for two $72
Creekstone Farms skirt steak $36
Triple chocolate cake $12
Carrot cake $12
Pecan pie cheesecake $14
Pink grapefruit Italian ice $10