Stephen Starr won “Outstanding Restaurateur” honors for his portfolio of upscale eateries from South Florida to New York at the 2017 James Beard Awards earlier this week. Chef Justin Smillie has been showered with critical praise for his kitchen skills in New York, including at the original Upland. So how could things go so wrong at their Miami Beach outpost of Upland, which opened in November 2016?
I’ve been pondering the question since a mystifying recent meal. Upland started strong but turned into a real downer. It is a gorgeous place, its packed dining room and leather banquettes bathed in the golden glow of illuminated jars of Meyer lemons lining cases along the walls. Starr is known for jaw-dropping restaurants, including Steak 954 in Fort Lauderdale, Makoto in Bal Harbour and Buddakan in his native Philadelphia. But beneath the beautiful veneer at Upland there is a troubled youth. The food is maddeningly uneven, and the service and management are well-meaning but off-kilter.
In a way, Upland is an embodiment of South Beach: lots of style, shaky on substance. It is a hot spot for people who want to see and be seen. But as the miscues kept piling up and heads kept shaking in bewilderment at my table, I couldn’t help but gaze wistfully at the soothing neon sign of Joe’s Stone Crab that I saw through a window. If only Upland could import some of Joe’s well-oiled efficiency and consistency. Instead, my group had a befuddling ride. Dishes we never ordered were plopped on our table. The duck wings we ordered never arrived. A pasta dish was so salty it was sent back. The $37 cioppino was so underwhelming, with flavorless broth and skimpy seafood, we complained. It was removed from the bill.
The house couldn’t even get the atonement right. Near the end of our meal, a manager came over and apologized for “a crazy night,” and offered to bring coffee and an extra dessert, the California Dreamsicle of mango and coconut ice cream. At that point, I wasn’t sure if my cover had been blown and the house recognized me. When I later saw that the final tab included the Dreamsicle ($8) and a cappuccino ($5.50) in addition to the two desserts we ordered, my egotistical delusions were gone.
Smillie groaned when I recounted that coda during a follow-up phone interview. “That shouldn’t have happened,” Smillie says. Not to a critic or any customer. (And for the record, I was informed by a publicist that I wasn’t recognized until I was heading out the door.)
Smillie apologized, and asked if I could make a return visit. Here’s the thing about Upland: There are some restaurants where I walk out perturbed and say I never want to set foot in them again. Upland was seductive, with enough promise and beauty that I could see giving it another chance. I’d have no qualms sipping cocktails at the bar or in a cozy wooden booth at the edges of the boisterous dining room. It’s the eating that fills me with a little trepidation.
Some dishes were great, including raw-fish openers such as bigeye tuna tartare with puffed rice ($22) and wahoo crudo ($15). The housemade pappardelle ($24) with spicy sausage, kale and Parmigiano was killer, and made me see why New York Times dining critic Pete Wells called Smillie “a pasta savant” in a flattering 2015 review of the New York Upland. Wells also deemed Smillie “a vegetable sage,” and his restrained little gem lettuce salad ($18), with avocado, cucumber and walnut vinaigrette, was lovely. That was one of the dishes we didn’t order. It was placed on our table as we awaited a pizza.
“Sometimes, when things get backed up in the kitchen, they send [a salad] out,” Smillie explains.
Some dishes were standard misses, such as the inventive pistachio pizza ($19) that has become one of the restaurant’s top sellers. To me, the fat-on-fat richness of the crushed pistachios atop the fontina and stracciatella cheeses didn’t work. “There’s a divide on that one,” Smillie says. The crust was good, lightly charred in a wood-burning oven.
But there were also some assaults to the senses. Consider, for example, the $82 coal-roasted short rib for two that our server pushed. Smillie prides himself on being a meat master. He has written a cookbook titled “Slow Fires – Mastering New Ways To Braise, Roast and Grill.” The short rib platter certainly was an impressive pile of meat, a sprawling mountain of darkened fatty flesh covered with shards of fresh shaved horseradish and celery. The daunting mound reminded me of the Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island. The only thing missing was a flock of vultures circling overhead. I’m always one to forgive inelegant plating if food tastes good. But in this case, my tablemates and I were overcome by salt. Cheek-puckering, tongue-swelling salt.
Smillie says our platter might have been heavy on the Castelvetrano olives, but this tasted like the meat itself. Smillie says he doesn’t know what went awry, and that he brines the short rib in a 6 ½ percent salt solution for 36 hours, and always has good results. Ours tasted as if it had been dredged from the Bonneville Salt Flats aftera week.
We also had a salt problem with the bucatini cacio e pepe ($19), one of Smillie’s signature pastas. Ours was inedible, and we sent it back. Smillie was baffled, because he says the dish has no salt apart from what’s in the water used to boil the dried pasta imported from Naples. The dish contains butter, olive oil, black pepper and pecorino Romano cheese, which he said can be salty. I’ve had plenty of pecorino Romano through the years, but I wondered if there were a salt gremlin on the loose in his kitchen.
Such is the Twilight Zone that top chefs often encounter when they come to South Beach. Smillie was born and raised in Upland, Calif., (hence the restaurant name), and his family moved to New Jersey when he was in high school. He took flight working in New York for top-tier chefs such as Jean-Georges Vongerichten at Mercer Kitchen and Jonathan Waxman at Washington Park and Barbuto. He earned three stars from the New York Times when he ran Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria, then was recruited by Starr to open Upland in New York in 2014.
The Upland concept encourages sharing, and the menu includes small plates, pizzas, pastas, seafood and meat. “The way to do it is get a little of something raw, a little of something green, a pizza or pasta, and then one of the big dishes,” Smillie says.
The restaurant was designed by Roman and Williams, the same outfit that did the original Upland on Park Avenue South and features a huge, airy dining room with dark woods, subdued lighting, floor-to-ceiling windows up front and an open kitchen along the back. It also contains one quirk, a path that goes through server stations to get to the far side of the dining room. “We’re working on that,” Smillie says.
Smillie says he now splits his time 50-50 between the New York and Miami Beach restaurants, but changes the ratio “as needed.” I say his crew in South Beach needs him more.
49 Collins Ave., Miami Beach
305-602-9998 or UplandMiami.com
Cuisine: Modern American
Cost: Expensive to very expensive. Appetizers, pizzas and pastas cost $15 to $31. Mains $32 to $82. Desserts $8 to $12
Hours: Lunch served noon-3 p.m. Monday-Friday. Brunch 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m Saturday-Sunday. Dinner nightly 5:30-11 p.m (until midnight Friday-Saturday)
Credit cards: All major
Bar: Full bar with craft cocktails, extensive wine list with many half bottles
Sound level: Comfortable in bar area, noisier in main dining room
Wheelchair access: Ground level
Parking: Valet or metered street