Follow the light. The golden glow of preserved lemons, up-lit in rows of glass jars that beckon from copper shelves, draws diners into the welcoming cocoon of Upland Miami’s oak-and-leather dining room.
Servers bustle across the wood floor in tailored black-and-white checkered shirts and jeans like a sunset-kissed Ralph Lauren ad sprung to life.
Mega-restaurateur Stephen Starr is spinning culinary fantasy again. This time — his fifth venture in South Florida — he has re-created the popular NYC brasserie that prompted New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells to urge everyone to “go to Upland” when it opened in Manhattan in 2015.
If you value attentive, smart service in a sophisticated, casual setting with some reliable, subtle dishes, then we’ll repeat the suggestion and send you to Miami Beach’s southernmost point. There are no stunning head-snappers here, but as a neighborhood comfort spot, Upland Miami has become a major asset for the South of Fifth district since opening one block from the beach in late November.
Forgo one of the snug banquettes for a perch at the chef’s bar overlooking the open kitchen if you want to catch some food theater by the chef-partner who brings cred to both Uplands.
At 6-foot-6-inches tall, chef Justin Smillie is easy to spot. He’s the one hunched over tiny plates like a myopic, blond bear carefully arranging dinner. Smillie first won national attention with his crusty, caramelized short ribs for two at New York’s Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria. The tender meat travels with him, along with several New York chefs he’s imported.
The Culinary Institute of America grad, who has worked with Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Tom Colicchio and Jonathan Waxman, now splits his presence between Upland Miami and Upland New York. What he treasures most in Miami is the warmth – not from our endless sunshine but a coal oven custom built in his kitchen here.
“I have 15 feet of live fire in Miami that I don’t have in New York,” gloats Smillie, whose cookbook, “Slow Fires” (Clarkson Potter, 2015), explores the pleasures of meat, heat and time.
Smillie’s blistered, buttery skirt steak, marinated for three days in Korean black garlic until the soy-balsamic umami pervades every membrane, is a clear beneficiary. Served with a nutty Romanesco sauce and grilled bunching onions, it’s rustic and rich.
Another victory: Crispy duck wings, which Smillie confits for tenderness, deep fries in duck fat for a brittle exterior and brushes with yuzu kosho for a pop of citrus-chile paste he discovered via his Japanese mother-in-law. The zesty fermented flavor punches the tongue, followed by a salve of salty, dark meat.
Named for the California town where Smillie spent his childhood, Upland divides its succinct, sharing menu into easy-to-digest sections that highlight raw starters, pizzas, appetizers, pastas, entrees and vegetables. Many of the Italian-accented, California-style dishes from his New York restaurant are repeated here, including the “little gem” salad of avocado, cucumber and ricotta, and all of the pastas, which feature buried treasures – chicken liver, spicy sausage and kale, and shrimp and Meyer lemon – in the deceptively simple-looking bowls.
For an out-of-towner, Smillie learned quickly. Fresh Zak The Baker bread issues a complimentary welcome in a little leather basket, paired with a mouth-watering, briny tapenade.
There is a stronger emphasis on fish in Upland’s Miami version. As starters, the drunken snapper marinated in tequila, cilantro and tart key lime, and the tuna tartare, which relies on crunch from a base of puffed wild rice, are respectable, but nothing to rave about.
Wood-fired prawns are disappointingly one of the few native seafood dishes, but they are worth their weight in gold. The grand, plump crustaceans come six to a bowl, their smokiness soaked in olive oil and lemon.
The cioppino, one of 11 hearty entrees, is packed with jumbo lump crab, shrimp, mussels and market fish, with the heat turned up slightly in the light tomato broth with Korean gochujang chili paste. Charred Tuscan-style lamb chops, three to a plate, are elegant and juicy, with a coal-roasted stuffed eggplant on the side.
Vegetable options include crispy artichokes, their darkened bodies piled high in a small bowl. Preserved lemons were promised in the dish, but their presence wasn’t strong, leaving us hankering for aioli to wet the charred remains.
The polished wait staff spoils throughout the meal with conversation and careful attention to detail. Warm, wet towels and sliced lemons appear between each course. The place gets points for eschewing the ubiquitous Miami teenager in a tight black dress as hostess. The army of employees here is mature, knowledgeable and clearly excited to be a part of it all.
The impressive 26-page wine and spirits menu, heavy on stateside and European labels, could easily overwhelm, but beverage director Jen Schmitt, an advanced sommelier, easily discusses options without pretension. Her classy enthusiasm is like a fresh ocean breeze through Upland’s patio doors.
Along with a small bar near the entrance and a wide-open room of upholstered booths, there’s a sidewalk terrace for outdoor dining. Inside, guests awkwardly pass through a narrow gap between serving stations to enter the dining room, which seems ripe for collisions. Music ranging from the blues to the Ramones is piped in low enough to allow for conversation but loud enough to make you smile.
Seven dessert options go beyond standard sweets, most notably the pecan pie cheesecake, a rectangular wedge of the lighter, ricotta kind, resting between a graham cracker bottom and a pecan crumble on top.
Starr retains his winning formula and, really, that’s the only major issue I have with Upland Miami. It’s a beautiful place to eat, but this is a template that could be plopped down in Anywhere, USA. There is no sense of place. The staff seems flown in for the moment. Even Smillie’s insistence on no nightly specials seems to imply he may not be around much.
“I’m letting the place still evolve,” he says. Let’s hope he spends more time in Miami so the Upland here evolves into something we can recognize as our own.
Follow Jodi Mailander Farrell on Twitter: @JodiMailander.
For the latest restaurant inspection reports, visit dine.miami.com
Miami Herald critics dine anonymously at the newspaper’s expense.
If You Go
Place: Upland Miami
Rating: 3 stars (Very Good)
Address: 49 Collins Ave., Miami Beach
Contact: 305-602-9998, UplandMiami.com
Hours: Noon-3 p.m. Monday-Friday for lunch; 5:30 p.m.-11 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, until midnight Friday-Saturday, for dinner. Brunch 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday-Sunday.
Prices: small plates $15-$27; entrees $17-$58; desserts $8-$12
FYI: VS, MC, AmEx; full bar; street parking or valet.
What The Stars Mean: 1 (Poor) 1.5 (Fair) 2 (OK) 2.5 (Good) 3 (Very Good) 3.5 (Excellent) 4 (Exceptional)