The menu at the newly opened Upton 43 in Linden Hills reads like a grocery list for the Very Hungry Caterpillar’s Swedish cousin:
“fermented lettuce, egg yolk, walnut, buttermilk $14”
“pickled herring, potato, apple, almond, cucumber, dill $15”
“cod, hazelnut, cabbage, fermented grapes $28”
How are these ingredients prepared? In what proportions are they presented? Are you getting a cold dish or a hot dish? A salad or a finger sandwich?
That, apparently, is not supposed to factor into your ordering decisions.
Compare that with the menus of, say, 10 years ago: “Three-quarters of the breast of a 10-month-old chicken, pasture-raised by the Ostrom family, pan-seared then lightly basted with 40-percent milkfat cream from the Peterson Dairy in Owatonna. Served with Brussels sprouts roasted in a 500-degree oven, glazed with true aceto balsamico di Modena, and sprinkled with toasted Marcona almonds.”
Thank goodness those days are over. But have we swung the pendulum all the way in the other direction? When a menu reads like an ingredient list, you’re putting far more of your dining experience into the chef’s hands. Ordering becomes like a trust fall — which has its own little thrill, of course. (In fact, it almost makes me want to put a spoiler alert on the rest of this review.)
But what happens when you screw up your courage and what arrives on the table turns out to be a heaping plate of cognitive dissonance?
Let’s talk about that “fermented lettuce, etc.,” for example. Upton 43’s Scandinavian heritage made this something we obviously had to try. “Fermented” makes you think of certain soft yet crunchy textures and a distinct funk — maybe this would be a northern take on kimchi. Egg yolks and buttermilk are creamy — this sounds comforting and rich.
What arrived were four perfectly crisp and perfectly ordinary Romaine leaves, carrying a weight of white powder (that’s the buttermilk) and tiny specks of yellow powder (the egg yolks) and standing in a pool of oatmeal-colored cream (the walnuts). Playful, right? What was expected to be creamy was dry; what was expected to be dry was creamy.
But friendships were nearly tossed aside at our table over which portion of this dish was supposed to be “fermented.” My (improbable and wrong) vote was for the streaks of green liquid under the walnut sauce. My nearly-ex friend’s (improbable and correct) vote was for the perfectly crisp, perfectly ordinary Romaine. (Our patient, friendly, and knowledgeable server helped track down an explanation for this. I’m deeply sorry for not following all of it, but the answer involved other fermented vegetables, several days and a compression chamber.)
See the rub? We couldn’t just trust fall. We brought our own expectations to our order, and when expectations were so at odds with what arrived, they strongly colored our perception of the dish. If the menu had described instead a house take on Caesar salad, we would not have been so surprised. And, yeah, we might not have ordered it.
Of course, I can read your mind already: “That’s what the server is for,” you’re thinking. And, yes, we did have such long conversations with him that by the end of the night he was practically part of our dining party, but we did not ask him to describe the preparation of every dish on the menu. We might still be there if we had.
Our first chat with the waiter involved a vocabulary lesson. We knew “linseed,” “gooseberry,” “gjetost,” and “chervil,” but we needed help with “ymerdrys” (Danish rye crumble, like a dry cereal), “prastost” (a mild cheese with the texture of Swiss), and “soder tea” (a Swedish tea blend).
Again, the menu serves as a bit of a personality test: Does ymerdrys make you feel adventurous? Or excluded?
After the fateful salad, there were several times that trust fall more than paid off. We were pretty confident that “duck sausage, onion, fig, toasted buckwheat $32” would be a winning combination. (After it came to the table, someone walking by leaned in and whispered, “That’s going to change your life.” A bit of an exaggeration, of course. A bit.) But we couldn’t have guessed that the toasted buckwheat would be turned into a silky base somewhere between a creamy polenta and a pureed soup. And the little lagniappe — a crisp, tightly rolled fig egg roll — was even more delightful because it was a surprise.
This is chef and owner Erick Harcey in his element. He has been surprising diners and pushing the edges of what ingredients can do for seven years at the gastropub-ish Victory 44, and at Upton 43 he’s folding those skills into his years of fine cooking experience and seasoning them with his Scandinavian heritage. He’s exactly the kind of guy who would confit slices of celeriac for several days before grilling them, serve them on a stiff puree of celeriac, and garnish the dish with paper-thin pickles along with blueberries that had been dried and reconstituted until they turned into some hypersonic version of themselves (“grilled celeriac, dried blueberry, chantrelle, barley $24”).
That was one of our favorite dishes. Celeriac is not an easy sell and not easy to work with. It can taste metallic or turn mushy and grainy when overcooked. The confit turned those slices into meaty, satisfying fillets. Did we need to know that before we ordered it? Did we even really need to know after we had enjoyed it? Nah, not really. This was a good case of, “Don’t worry. Chef’s got this.”
Sometimes the culinary wizardry and hidden extra effort pays off, as with those blueberries. Sometimes it doesn’t. Hidden under sturdy, silky ribbons of beets (“shaved beets, gooseberries, gjetost, chervil, ymerdrys $14”) were tiny golden beets that had been roasted and rehydrated several times in beet juice to concentrate their flavor. Am I a philistine for finding those beets nearly identical in flavor to ordinary roasted beets? Yes. Was the dish delicious (and really hearty for a starter, by the way) anyway? Yes. Especially the ymerdrys.
Even a chef like Erick Harcey has to fill a few expected slots in the menu. That’s why you’ll find both steak (“120 day aged beef, creamed kale, pickled onion rings $43,” above [now on the menu at $34]) and Swedish meatballs (“swedish meatballs, potato puree, charred cucumber $26”) alongside the glazed pork cheeks and gjetost terrine. Both of these were exercises in the near impossible: How do you turn something people order because it is familiar and comforting into something surprising, something that walks the same line as celeriac confit?
And when what comes to the table is good — fork-tender steak, meatballs that would get your mormor’s nod of approval — how do you judge it against the other dishes at the table that actually changed the way you think about certain foods?
There’s one thing for sure: Harcey is going to sell a lot of meatballs. I predict an order at every table for at least the first six months. And that means he’s going to be judged on them. Those $26 meatballs are going to have to blow a lot of people away to keep them coming back.
Which brings us to the prices. This is fine dining, folks, with fine dining prices. But now you have to do a little math. There’s no tipping at Upton 43. Your magnanimous 25 percent. Your stingy 10 percent. They’re no good here. The price is the price, and the staff — front and back of the house — get paid what they get paid. (Can I get a “Hear, hear”?) That means you can mentally shave about 20 percent off the prices on the menu. Putting those meatballs at $20 and the salad at $11.
With fine dining prices come fine dining expectations. On one visit, Upton 43 lived up to those expectations. On another, it did not, with poorly paced service, tepid mashed potatoes, and a couple of oversalted dishes. People only come back to drop $35 on a another steak when the whole experience was perfect. We’re rooting for Upton 43, so we hope they will.
But, like a chef with a trick up her sleeve, we’ve been saving the best for last: dessert. Order it. Save room for it. Plan for it. Order all of it. Come late some evening and order nothing but dessert. You say you’re not a dessert person? Shut up and order dessert.
The only friendship-threatening arguments when dessert came were over which of the four dishes (each $14) was the best. The carrot granita over juniper bavarois (a lightly gelled cream) made everyone at the table smile like a happy baby.
The rye pancake was an inch thick, tangy, and almost creamy, flecked with thyme.
The gjetost terrine made every cheesecake ever made look like an insipid, weak attempt at dessert (sorry, cheesecake, I used to love you).
So, order dessert. Order boldly. Let unfamiliar words and ingredients be your guide. Never had gooseberries or sunchokes or chicken liver? Then that’s what you should order, because Upton 43 will more than do them justice. If you go for the comforting and familiar and end up jealously eyeing your companion’s plate, you now have only yourself to blame.
Fine dining in Linden Hills, Minneapolis
4312 Upton Ave S
Minneapolis, MN 55410
OWNER / CHEF: Erick Harcey
Mon-Fri 9 a.m.-3 p.m. 5 p.m.-11 p.m.
Sat-Sun 9 a.m.-3 p.m. 5 p.m.-11 p.m.
BAR: Pending license
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED?: Yes / Yes for weekends
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / Often
ENTREE RANGE: $22-$44
PARKING: Small lot, limited street parking