Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Cobaya Upland with Justin Smillie

When I first heard that Upland was opening in Miami Beach, the place was something of an enigma to me. I thought of Justin Smillie as a New York City chef (one whose NYC restaurant, also named Upland, I'd never tried), but the menu felt like it came from the other coast. As it turns out, Upland is a town in San Bernardino County inland of Los Angeles where Smillie was born, and his cooking style is indeed very much inspired by the "California cuisine" idiom: seasonal, vegetable forward, casual in presentation but still precise in execution.

The South of Fifth spot, which Smillie opened with restaurateur Stephen Starr (whose Miami products also include Makoto and Le Zoo) has become one of my favorites among the latest crop of "Sixth Borough" restaurants in Miami. I love the dining room, designed by Roman & Williams, with its green leather banquettes and walls lined with backlit jars of preserved lemons. But even more, I love the food, whose superficial simplicity usually belies a sonorous depth of flavor.

We were eager to do a Cobaya dinner with him, and the interest was mutual, but since Smillie is not in South Florida regularly this was a challenging one to schedule. We finally lined up a date, and even though it was only a week after our last event, we jumped on the opportunity.

As always, our request to the chef was simple: do whatever you want, just don't do anything on your regular menu. Smillie's response was entirely off-menu, but also entirely in keeping with the spirit of his restaurant.[1] Here's what he made:

(You can see all my pictures in this Cobaya Upland with Chef Justin Smillie flickr set).

Smillie started things off with a salad – served family style – and my immediate reaction was, "It's not going to be as good as his little gem salad," a combination of perky gem lettuce, avocado, cucumber, and shaved ricotta salata in a walnut vinaigrette that hits all the right notes for me. I was wrong. This was every bit its equal. Here were all sorts of early spring things: tender spinach leaves, asparagus, fava beans, artichokes, frilly little mushrooms that were crispy like croutons. Crumbled cotija cheese added some creamy richness, a precisely balanced vinaigrette added structure and brightness.

Mrs. F thinks I hate salads. I don't. A good salad makes me very happy, and this was a very good salad.[2]

Spring is also the season for soft shell crabs, when they molt from their hard exoskeletons and basically the whole critter can be eaten. Smillie gave these a crispy new shell of flaked coconut, and served them with a hemp seed aioli and a bouquet of fresh soft herbs. There was a sneaky bit of nostalgia here which it took me a while to pinpoint: this was like a gussied up version of coconut shrimp!

Speaking of nostalgia – when was the last time you had mango salsa? When was the last time you actually saw mango salsa on a menu, even here in the erstwhile capital of Mango Salsaville? Smillie described this dish as "hot smoked tuna cheek, spicy mango," but let's call that "spicy mango" what it is: MANGO SALSA! And it was delicious! The smoked tuna cheek, like the Japanese izakaya staple hamachi kama (yellowtail collar), was somewhat fiddly and took some work to extract the good bits, but the reward was some of the fattiest, most unctuous, flavorful flesh on the fish. And yes, it tasted great with the sweet and heat of that "spicy mango," as well as the blistered shishito peppers and huge basil leaves draped on top.

If the Miami Heat can break out some neon pink and blue Miami Vice uniforms this year, it's only fitting we bring back mango salsa too.

(continued ...)

Another dish that says "spring" – salt marsh lamb[3] cooked over fire, mingling crusty, charred fat and tender, deeply flavored meat. Served with crunchy sprouted lentils, roasted sweet potatoes, and a silky, herbaceous green sauce, there was absolutely nothing fancy about this dish and it was absolutely perfect.

Dessert brought yet another dose of nostalgia which again took me a moment to locate in the memory banks. Juicy ripe strawberries, vanilla ice cream, crunchy granola – it was as delicious as it was simple, but where have I had this combination before? And then it came back to me: those Good Humor Strawberry Shortcake bars you used to get from the ice cream truck. I am 99% certain this is no coincidence; after all, the regular menu has another version of an ice cream truck staple, Smillie's "California Dreamsicle" with swirled watermelon and vanilla yogurt soft-serve.

I thoroughly enjoyed this meal in the moment; I enjoyed it even more in retrospect. There's nothing fancy or fussed over in Smillie's cooking, yet every single thing is done with thoughtfulness and attention. And I especially appreciated the trips down food memory lane prompted by several of his dishes.

A big thank you to Chef Smillie, to his Miami CDC Francis Derby, to beverage director Jen Schmitt for some really great pairings throughout the evening starting with Lanson Brut Rosé and closing with a gorgeous Sauternes from La Chapelle de Lafaurie-Peyraguey, to the whole crew at Upland, and as always most of all, to the guinea pigs whose interest and support make these events possible.

49 Collins Avenue, Miami Beach, Florida

[1] Maybe even more so. If I have a complaint about Upland, it's that the menu rarely changes and doesn't reflect the seasons – either local or West Coast – nearly as much as it could. I suppose that's the nature of trying to retain quality control over a restaurant a thousand miles from home base.

[2] My only point is that a salad is not a meal, it's a part of a meal.

[3] Salt marsh lamb comes from sheep that graze in coastal areas where the land is flooded by salt-water seas in the spring. Though from everything I read, it's a product that usually doesn't come into season until May or June, so I'm not quite sure where it was coming from in late March.

No comments:

Post a Comment