Even the most weathered New Yorkers catch themselves California dreaming from time to time. That’s why Justin Smillie (Il Buco Alimentari, Barbuto) couldn’t have picked a better spot for Upland, his California-inspired and Italian-rooted new restaurant in Flatiron. Named for the town where he grew up, a homey setting welcomes hearty pastas, rich meat entrees, zingy pizzas, and spiced seafood, all adding to the laid-back West Coast ease.
The clamor of Park Avenue begins to fade away as soon as you get past the front door at the sight of golden, illuminated jars of preserved lemons. That warm glow overflows into a large, bustling dining room, where chatty Manhattanites nibble scallops between martinis. Walk past the copper and natural oak bar to join your date at the back of the room, where countless lit wine bottles and carafes lend a cozy glow to the scene. Your table, set with a black-and-gray gingham cloth, rests under whitewashed walls and black-stenciled murals of lemons, grapes and artichokes — California staples. You’re back in mom’s kitchen, done up in its Sunday best.
The 500-bottle wine list requires a bit of direction from your cheery host, but not before you get a taste of the fresh potato loaf brought straight to your table with a circle of Vermont butter. The menu leads with the chewy pizza everyone’s talking about, and when your pear pie arrives, you find out why. Pecan pesto spread is topped with creamy stracciatella cheese, arugula, and — of course — pears, with a sweet punch in each bite that brightens your evening. Next, the pasta — including a savory bucatini alla carbonara — is the Italian we love from Smillie, but his Upland cioppino is Western all the way. Scoop up a spoonful of spicy San Francisco tomato stew below a seafood medley of red shrimp, mussels, striped bass and more. It’s a hard one to share.
A rich coffee is a wise dessert companion to cinnamon-sugar doughnuts or cheesecake brûlée — and the perfect excuse to stick around a bit longer. In the company of an uncharacteristically contented dinner crowd — and the low gold sheen over everything — you can feel the Pacific sun that Smillie bottled up and brought back from home. Simmer in it awhile longer before heading back into the busy urban din.