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Justin Smillie Upland

Smoked and roasted branzino for two with fennel-leek vinaigrette and Meyer lemon


Golden State

By Jen Karetnick

Photography by Michael Pisarri


At restaurateur Stephen Starr’s latest Miami winner, chef Justin Smillie makes palates’ dreams come true with Italian-tinged Californian cuisine that truly shines.

If you’re in favor of homey, reassuring flavors and familiar, comforting combinations, it’s probably best to stay upwind of Upland. The latest Stephen Starr bistro to debut in Miami Beach, Upland features dynamic Cal-Ital fare wrought by Executive Chef and partner Justin Smillie. If palates were Myers-Briggs personalities, the ones to most appreciate at this place would be Dynamos, Champions and Visionaries; Caretakers, Healers and Counselors might have a harder (but not impossible) time searching for something safe.

That’s because Smillie, who has served under some of the most renowned chefs of our time, has become known for his unapologetic, full-bodied food. Even relatively plain dishes, such as the cacio e pepe, a simple bucatini roughened with cracked black pepper and freshly grated Pecorino Romano, offer sting and tang in each bite.

Located on the edge of South Beach in the South of Fifth neighborhood, Upland is named for the San Bernardino County town in California where Smillie grew up. The Roman and Williams-designed establishment, with decor that pays homage to its older New York City sibling, hints at what to expect via the LED-lighted jars of preserved lemons and artichokes that line the walls. No false advertising here, either: These two ingredients do, indeed, combine into a crispy vegetable side dish, and you’ll also find a distinct lemon-y edge to other menu items, including the wood-fired grilled Florida prawns, the confit-like duck wings and the smoked and roasted branzino for two—and yes, do take this “for two” notification as seriously as Smillie takes his seasoning, as this is a large specimen.

That citrus touch is also found in the cucumber salad, which is something of a misnomer. The salad is a lovely presentation with long, planed English cucumbers curled in place like locks of an actress’ hair at an awards show red carpet. But it’s less about the fruit of the vine than it is about what’s both underneath it and hidden within it. A puddle of homemade ricotta, laced with the amber of olive oil and salted like a frozen Northeastern street, is the base layer; throughout, coins of Castelvetrano olives and vinegary boquerones, or white sardines, add different salinities and pungencies. Every layer is also speckled with a double take of black pepper and poppy seeds.

This dish is matched in love-it-or-leave-it intensity by the beautifully composed, catalogworthy little gem salad, which lays out more of the cucumber on top of long, whole leaves of light green romaine. Shavings of ricotta salata and an acidic walnut vinaigrette, which cuts through the residual fattiness left by both cheese and nut, turn what could be a Caesar into something infinitely more interesting.

Justin Smillie Upland

Pistachio pizza with fontina, stracciatella and red onions

The menu caters to the so-called raw trend with an opening category that might beckon beef tartare lovers who are sick of crudos and ceviches, and continues with various pizzas. The restaurant not only boasts a pizza oven, but a climate-controlled room where the dough is rolled and mixed to ensure it’s always at the right temperature. You might think your server is bragging when you hear this. He’s not. That pizza crust has a perfect stretch and breaking point. We especially enjoyed the broccoli pie, a gorgeous synthesis of housemade ricotta, piquant garlic and broccoli florets, whose almost-bitter, iron-rich content is released by a light browning.

As for the pasta, don’t look further than the estrella. This star-shaped, tubular delight is tossed in a stunning sauce comprising chicken liver, sherry, rosemary and sage, and it tastes like Smillie melted foie gras over the plate. It’s also so rich, your blood pressure will likely drop to help you digest it.

If you want to double down on that postprandial hypotension, I suggest pairing the estrella with the Creekstone Farms skirt steak—its sauce makes a great topping for the cut, an outstanding specimen with just the right amount of char on the outside and a tender but appropriate chew. For a leaner option, and to avoid a vasovagal response, you can stick with the plated accompaniments: a cool, relish-like Romesco and a couple of seared bunching onions that look like overgrown scallions, both of which add simple but tasty depths. Or you can opt out of the meat category altogether and delight in the seared bigeye tuna or coal-roasted salmon, both matched with regional citrus and ancient grains—the former with blood orange and bulgur, the latter with Florida grapefruit and farro (as well as pickled beets).

The blood orange shows up again at dessert time, as a granita paired with vanilla frozen yogurt and chocolate crunchies in the California dreamsicle. This concoction takes you back to summertime ice cream-truck fun. Like the pink grapefruit Italian ice with Campari zest, it’s also an excellent palate cleanser for a meal that is as brisk as a California coastal breeze. 

Justin Smillie Upland

Bartender Jamie Queen whips up a variety of cocktails at the Roman and Williams-designed bar.

49 Collins Ave., Miami Beach, 305.602.9998

Lunch: Mon.-Fri., noon-3pm. Dinner: Sun.-Thu., 5:30-11pm; Fri.-Sat., 5:30pm-midnight. Brunch: Sat.-Sun., 10am-3pm

Raw dishes, $15-$22; pizzas, $17-$20; appetizers, $16-$27; pastas, $19-$31; main courses, $30-$78; vegetables, $11-$15; desserts, $8-$12; wines by the glass, $10-$32; wines by the bottle, $33-$1,295; cocktails, $13-$16

Park it!
Around the corner on Fifth Street, newer street spots have been introduced that few seem to have noticed—well, on weeknights, anyway.

Dinner and a Show
Feeling casual or dining solo? Grab a seat at the bar and watch the action in the open exhibition kitchen, but be ready to absorb the smoke from the wood-fired grill and the pizza oven.

Go Halvsies
When your date isn’t drinking or you feel like matching different wines to your courses, check out the rather vast list of half-bottles on the wine menu. 

Originally published in the March issue of Miami