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California cuisine has always been a curious thing. It’s local but globally inflected, lean but filling, as driven by its ingredients as by the chef seasoning them. The vague concept is more an aura than anything else—for a homegrown likeness, see the farm-to-table Brooklyn-eatery stereotype—a Golden State glow that radiates throughout Upland, a glossy tribute to chef Justin Smillie’s hometown nestled at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains.
The big, buzzing room, where even food-world brass like Bobby Flay recently had to wait for a table, is damn near sunny on a drab stretch of Park Avenue South, a testament to designers Roman and Williams who, between this and the similarly luminous Lafayette, prove to have a gaffer’s eye for great lighting.
That good-looking gleam extends to the copper shelves stocked with uplit wine bottles and jars of preserved Moroccan lemons, the green-leather banquettes that carve out the space, the lacquered ceilings and the illustrious diners sitting beneath them, suit jackets tossed behind their chairs as they tuck into pear-and-arugula pizza ($18) and crispy, yuzukosho-smacked duck wings ($17).
Smillie’s cooking is fittingly vibrant, bridging those West Coast roots and the hearty Italian he dazzled New Yorkers with at Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria. Torpedo beets with white chocolate ($13) and chili-zapped brussels sprouts ($11) tout to the former, but it’s the pizza and pastas here that act as ample reminders of Smillie’s italiano finesse.
Of the three charred, puffy-crusted pies on the menu, the nduja ($19) is a standout: thick, bready and candidly greasy with puddles of stracciatella cheese and smudges of spicy, spreadable Calabrian pork sausage.
Zesty sausage recurs in Smillie’s gorgeous bowl of house-made pappardelle, al dente ribbons slick with porky, robust ragù and silky wisps of kale and Parmesan ($18). The estrella ($17) is even better, ridged tubes coated with creamy nubs of a shallot-and-rosemary–kicked chicken liver that’s so meaty, you’d be forgiven in mistaking it for beef. With a splash of sherry to cut the richness, it’s like bolognese on overdrive.
Fusion flourishes are deployed with a steady hand. A brush of kale, puntarelle and Bordeaux radish is given the Caesar treatment ($14), lighter and fresher than your nonna’s but with a sharp garlic-anchovy dressing that nods to the original’s satisfying brine. San Francisco’s cioppino ($35), stewed here with red shrimp, Jonah crab and striped bass, gets its unexpected thrum from Korea’s pungent gochujang (fermented chili paste).
A few glaring technical missteps, however, threaten to spoil an otherwise effortlessly good meal. A fried head of hen-of-the-woods mushroom ($14) is grease-limp and lacking crispiness, weighed down by a drag of thick goat cheese, and while Smillie’s porcelet ($34) has a nice hard-candy crackle, that crust comes at the expense of moist, juicy flesh, and the accompanying Jimmy Nardello peppers and lightly pickled persimmons provide stomach-turning acidity.
Smillie may have happily married Italian and Californian cooking, but he still needs to hitch that easy-breezy West Coast lineage with discerning New York standards. Then, he’ll really be golden.
345 Park Avenue South
|Cross street:||at 26th St|
|Transport:||Subway: N, R, 6 to 23rd St|
|Price:||Average entrée: $25. AmEx, Disc, MC, V.|
|Opening hours:||Mon 5:30–10pm, Thu–Sat 5:30–11pm, Sun 5:30–10pm|
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