Justin Smillie, who until this past June was turning out excellent Italian food at the helm of Il Buco Alimentari, is now just a week or so away from opening Upland, his California-style restaurant with Philadelphia hit-maker Stephen Starr. Eater stopped by the Flatiron restaurant (which is shaping up to be big, handsome brasserie) earlier this week, and Smillie took a break from the kitchen to chat. Here he is on what to expect from Upland:
Tell me about Upland. Have you finalized the menu?
Justin Smillie: We're like 95 percent of the way there. We're trying to be really seasonal in New York City, and we're coming into the middle part of the fall, so what we started thinking about in August and early September is not we're going to open up with. I'm excited about coming into citrus season, you know pomelos and beautiful grapefruits, citrus and all that spice.
Are there any dishes right now that you're particularly excited about? Or is it all too new?
JS: It is new. I mean it's a continuation of what I've been doing the past couple years, but I wanted a less Italian palette. I wanted to explore the flavors of my early childhood, because California is such a melting pot in between Asian and Mexican, with really, really fresh cut produce all of the time. I'm going back to my roots a bit.
Are there Asian and Mexican influences on the menu?
JS: Even at Alimentari there were, just subtle.
So if I come here when it opens, what should I order?
JS: You're taking all of the mystery out of it. The big thing for me was to do some really pretty salads. So you'll see a very fresh element right from the get-go on the menu. We will do a couple pastas, loosely Italian, so like the noodle itself will be very rigorous Italian discipline but the sauce-work that we do with it will be less traditional. I think we're going to do some fantastic pizzas.
Nice. Do you have an oven?
JS: We do. We put in a wood. It was something that I wanted to get my head around, because I wanted to have a really beautiful dough. So I spent a lot of time mothering and building the structure of my dough before I started laying any elements on it. We were cooking blanks for like three weeks.
But you were doing some pizza stuff at Alimentari too.
JS: We did them for lunch. But we had a lot of things coming out of the oven at Alimentari, so doing pizzas at dinner was impossible. I mean it was even hard at lunch, when we would sell 60 branzino. Here we have a space in the kitchen that has been solely dedicated to turning out some exceptional pizzas. And those will change with the rhythm of the seasons.
Are you going to use the oven for anything else or just pizza?
JS: We'll probably roast a lot of vegetables in there, maybe some larger form of meat down the road.
When you left Alimentari, was this project already in your mind?
JS: This is something that I've always wanted to do. Obviously Italian food has been a big part of my life, between my time with Jonathan Waxman and Il Buco, but it can be a little inhibitive. This project came along, and Stephen and I started talking about it, and I just wanted a slightly broader palette. I was looking to my heroes like Jeremiah Tower, Alice Waters, and Judy Rogers and the work they did in the early 1980's. They were very informed by what was happening in the southern part of Europe but still they were looking into what was integrally California.
How did your partnership with Stephen Starr come about?
JS: I had a meeting and I met him a couple of times at Alimentari. It happened very organically.
So your partnership with him came about while you were at Alimentari?
JS: The conversation started while I was still there. While I loved my time there, the partnership is a pretty amazing opportunity. He's giving me the chance to pursue my dream, whereas before I was just sharing a dream.
What do you hope this restaurant will bring to the scene?
JS: I just want to keep putting out really fresh, really beautiful and unaffected food. I want people to have fun here. I'm not really the kind of guy who likes to eat in church. I want it to be an American brasserie, really alive, loud, vibrant, but super comfortable. Everything here is about being comfortable and enjoying the simple pleasures.
Are there any restaurants in New York that you looked to for inspiration?
JS: I love Estela. I eat at Estela probably twice a month, and I go there at least once a week to say 'Hey.' I think the work Ignacio does is beautiful. Totally respect Gramercy Tavern, ABC, Blue Hill Stone Barns. You know, they're mature restaurants and I hope that is what I grow to in my career.
So do you have an opening date yet?
JS: Let's go with the third week of October. We're close. We're really close. It's amazing how quick it turns around. This was a flurry of sawdust 10 days ago. The furniture comes in and the room starts to take shape, you dust everything, and then the dust settles, and then you dust it again. We're close.
Is there anything else we should know before it opens?
JS: It's exciting for me, because I've spent the last 10 years working in downtown Manhattan, so this is the chance for me to explore a new neighborhood. I was in the West Village for a long time, and I spent the last three years on the Bowery. I guess this is a true test of what I am made of. Here we are on Park Avenue.
Here's a peek at the kitchen, where Smillie is currently hard at work training a big kitchen staff. If all goes wells, the restaurant expects to open by the middle of next week. Reservations are already available on OpenTable, but those don't start until November 1.