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Zagat: Upland’s Winning Spin on Californian Cuisine

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The city’s hottest restaurant this year is known for its unique Californian cuisine. Zagat editor James Mulcahy filed this report for NY1.

We are closing out the last days of 2014 in this year’s hottest restaurant, Upland.

In a year of glitzy openings like the reborn Rainbow Room and Bobby Flay's hot spot Gato, this newly launched restaurant has become the biggest draw. The menu: elegant, Californian cuisine.

“Upland is the place that I was born in southern California. Most of my career was spent cooking very California-inflected food and it’s really about treating ingredients simply, with respect and just kind of letting the natural flavors shine," says Justin Smillie, chef and co-owner of Upland.

Whether it is a gigantic, tender pork chop or a fresh market salad, the focus is on showcasing classic ingredients. Although the menu is simple, it defies stereotypes about west coast cooking.

People who have been in the food world have heard this cliché about California cooking, that it’s just figs on a plate. I asked Smillie if that is true.

“It can be. At its most essential, what is better? I think we do a little more to the plate here than that, but when I have a great fig, there’s nothing better than a dollop of whipped cream or a bowl of vanilla ice cream,” he answered.

Among the must-try items are the stellar pizzas. They are meant to be shared at the beginning of the meal.

“We’re doing a white truffle, we’re doing a pear and pesto and we’re doing an ‘nduja pizza,” says Smillie.

I also asked him why he decided to have pizza on the menu. It seems like everywhere that’s opening these days in New York has some sort of pizza.

“It starts off with this kind of communal feeling. For us, it’s like the gateway drug to the meal,” he says.

In 2014, New York City diners craved top-notch food that was affordable and accessible, and in a great year for restaurants, Upland showed that a good deal of comfort can be found in a culinary trip to California.

California cuisine is not vegetables, clearly. They have lots of seafood, lots of meat. Comfort foods do not need to be very heavy like mac ‘n’ cheese comfort; just a simple, well-prepared piece of meat. I think that’s why this is such a popular restaurant right now.

For more food and restaurant videos, visit youtube.com/zagat.

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