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Justin Smillie Brings Stephen Starr Cred at Upland

You’ll be forgiven if you didn’t think Upland was going to be one of New York’s most satisfying new restaurants (which it is), or if you thought chef Justin Smillie was making a questionable career choice (which he was) by signing on. The California native left Il Buco Alimentari, an acclaimed downtown hotspot, to ply his trade on a corporate stretch of Park Avenue South. His new partner? East Coast mega-restaurateur Stephen Starr, a man responsible for Buddakan and El Vez. This is why many seasoned industry watchers thought Upland would be another overpriced, Italian-accented, money-maker slinging overpriced steaks. And then you eat here.

There are no steaks. Instead, there are are duck wings that rival the finest chicken wings. Smillie confits the drumettes for tenderness, deep fries them in duck fat for crispness, and then slathers them in yuzukosho, the aromatic citrus-chile paste that stands to become the next Sriracha. The meat is salty, with just a hint of game, while the kosho packs all the pucker of a Warhead candy. I've ordered them three times.

Above: Short ribs; Below: Duck wings and porcelet

Beef tartare? It comes with a surprise. The chopped steak is cool and tangy. Then you mix in a side of anchovy powder, and it tastes as if the Atlantic Ocean is rehydrating itself on your tongue. Exhilarating.

How about chilled farro noodles with sea urchin? It’s not the type of phoned-in uni we’ve grown accustomed to, haphazardly thrown over pasta like a pair of unwanted orange trousers. At Upland, the delicacy is folded into the noodles so that it becomes as luscious as melted sherbet. The complex sweetness plays foil to the sharp scallions.

These are the types of risky yet accessible preparations one might expect at Contra or Estela

These are the types of risky yet accessible preparations one might expect at Contra or Estela, not on a stretch of 26th Street across from Dos Caminos. Call it a win for Starr, who’s cemented his reputation as the Hal or Hank Steinbrenner of the hospitality industry. He's building up a cadre of talented chefs (and brands) like the Yankees build their baseball roster: through mergers and acquisitions. Starr was the guy who helped make Masaharu Morimoto a household name in the U.S. with a duo of East Coast Japanese restaurants. He found Peter Serpico a post-Momofuku home with an eponymous small plates joint. He took Brooklyn’s famed barbecue establishment, Fette Sau and transported the concept to Philadelphia, and he’ll soon replicate sister spot St. Anselm on Manhattan’s Bowery.

Upland's kitchen and its wall of preserved lemons

So now we have Upland, where dinner costs about as much as Il Buco, and where the same roasted short rib (for two) costs precisely what it does at Il Buco: $59. It’s not nearly as good as I remember it though; the fire-roasted meat is too well-executed, with a uniform tenderness and restrained level of spicing. What made the Il Buco version brilliant, when I sampled it back in 2012, was its delicious cragginess, pocked with chewy, overdone parts here and there, and studded with peppercorns that were occasionally so warming they bordered on Sichuan-level.

At Il Buco, Smillie treated foie gras like a deli meat, draping baloney-like slices of the liver over toast. It was stunning. Here, he gives us a run-of-the-mill, underseasoned torchon. And his pizzas add nothing to the city’s savory pie conversation, with forgettable crusts that sometimes lack salt, or that sometimes pack an unpleasant wood-fired tang.

So that brings us to the moderately bad news. Upland isn’t always as delicious or consistent as it should be. But it’s still a pretty rockin' (and comfortable) place to eat. The room glows in a single, gorgeous hue of gold, like an artificial sunset stollen from Cameron Crowe's Vanilla Sky. Shelves upon shelves of preserved lemons amplify the brilliance (and attract the likes of Martha Stewart). Those who found Il Buco cramped and uncomfortable will prefer Upland’s seemingly endless supply of banquettes, as well as its restrained noise level and polished service. The wait staff feel as if they're poached from the latest Danny Meyer establishment; all of them appear genuinely enthused to be working here, serving you slow-roasted celeriac with black truffles, a study in sugar and earth for $14.

Deep fried maitake mushroom

And since we’re talking about Danny Meyer, it’s worth noting that Upland’s Champagne by-the-bottle list might rank with Marta's as among the city’s most affordable, with eight selections under $100 and all 16 choices at $191 or less. That’s all thanks to the good work of Chantelle Pabros, who’s put together a list of striking values. Try the aromatic chenin blanc ($12) with raw hamachi; the oily fish sits in a yellow-green pool of apple and jicama juice. Order the toasty Iron Horse (a fine sparkler from California) to cut through the milky fats of trout-roe topped burrata. Or pair the nuttiness of a Palo Cortado sherry ($18) with the maitake mushroom, a perfect fungi that’s been deep fried to a funky crisp.

Pro tip: Share a pasta as a mid-course, though I stress the word share as some of the noodles are nearly portioned as entrees. Waiters sell the chicken liver estrella hard, and rightly so, because it’s awesome; Smillie breaks down the irony organs into a Bolognese-like crumble, with none of the liver's bilious funk loitering around on your palate. Even better is the pappardelle with pork sausage, with slices of kale acting like MSG, adding just an extra bit of salivary oomph. And then the technical Oscar goes to the tortellini en brodo, whose classic flavors get amped up with dashes of tomato vinegar and white soy.

Mains, like at most American restaurants, are oversized. Solo diners should opt for the more reasonably-portioned porcelet. It's the pork chop of the year, bursting with juices, a restrained porcine musk, and, as a bonus track, a strip of fat whose skin is crisped up like a chicharon. The other game changer is the cioppino, a seafood broth packed with fiery Korean gochujang and topped with a carabinero prawn, a creamy, oozy, head-on shrimp with so much flavor that a Scottish langoustine would taste bland by comparison.

Finish off with a competent pecan pie, the odd man out on the Cali-Italian menu, and keep your fingers crossed that pastry chef Sebastien Rouxel (Per Se), Starr’s latest high-profile purchase, can take the dessert list to the next level. No, not everything is perfect here, but even though the Yankees don’t make it to the World Series every year, they tend to win more than they lose. That means Upland’s odds are darn good.

Upland and Il Buco AV Cost About the Same

Cost: Vegetables and starters: $11-$21. Pastas and mains: $17-$59. Dessets: $9-$11.

Bonus tip: Bread service is stunning; a potato loaf with chive butter.

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