Photos by Caitlin Abrams
A delicate pile of Swedish pancakes with citrus and rye at brunch at Upton 43 in Minneapolis, MN
A delicate pile of Swedish pancakes with citrus and rye at brunch.
Lutefisk. Staring up at me like a ghost squid, there it was, the third rail of Minnesotan food. Lutefisk. Rehydrated, lye-soaked whitefish, more joked about than eaten in modern times, and chef Erick Harcey was standing proudly at the top of the special chef’s table, telling us all how happy he was to have been able to cook it for a new generation. How was it? Buttery! And totally fine. Unfortunately, it wasn’t delicious, and was one of 10 courses in a $125-a-person ticketed chef’s tasting menu that I got only occasional joy from, except, of course, the joy of bragging that I ate lutefisk, which is always worth something. It was better than the herring (too many layers of vinegar) and vastly superior to the charred onions and beets (charcoaly) and sunflower risotto with carrot-top oil (an alternately bitter and sticky porridge). All in all, the pricey meal was more experiment for the kitchen than pleasure for the guest: Is that OK?
The chef's table dessert board
I say no, but chef and owner Erick Harcey says yes. Harcey and I subsequently had a lively phone conversation about that very question. “I don’t want to do what everyone else is doing,” he told me. “I just want to cook food that feels right for me right now, hopefully not playing it too safe. Some of it may be my art, which sounds pretentious, and of course there’s craft, but I have ideas in my head, and I want to put them out there and see what people think. I want to push textures. Push flavors. Do you love it? Do you hate it? Either way, it’s cool with me.”
What do you, dear reader, think of a restaurant where you may be served challenging foods you might hate? How you answer that question will surely determine your feelings about new Upton 43, a spare Scandinavian stunner in Linden Hills where Harcey has taken a distinct turn away from the Perfect Burger, the signature dish of his other restaurant, Victory 44. It’s there that many people in the Twin Cities know him best. Victory 44 is a corner bar that’s all foodie candy: the rich and towering Perfect Burger, the airy clouds of whipped mortadella, the famous little bacon and date nuggets; it’s the rare common ground for people who love corner bars and people who follow world-class chefs on Instagram. Yet, to Harcey, that burger is not just a burger, but a sharp and lively double-edged sword. “I’m grateful for the Perfect Burger, it’s supported my family,” he says. “But it gets frustrating. It’s the best burger, yeah—but try this dish, it’s also awesome. And they won’t try anything else.”
That’s why you won’t find a Perfect Burger at Upton 43, except at brunch. (More on that in a moment.) For dinner at Upton 43 you’ll find: swiftly lacto-fermented Romaine lettuce leaves, served in a bowl of buttermilk, walnut and porcini puree, the whole thing topped with snowdrifts of powdered buttermilk, basil oil, and grated salt-cured egg yolks. It’s a triumph: It comes together as a wholly original and delicious Caesar salad, built on notes of earth and umami. There’s a charming earthy salad of beets roasted tender, sliced into yards of pretty ribbon, and made surprisingly light and berry-like with a pairing of nutty moussed gjetost cheese, rehydrated gooseberries in honeyed vinegar, and a buttery rye crumb. Yet there’s a screamingly acidic plate of pickled herring paired with pickled cucumbers, all of it mounded with an almond powder that vanishes on the palate and a few shards of an almond cracker that can’t counterbalance all that vinegar. The charred sunchokes with quince are sweet, earthy, sour, gummy. I tried dish after dish at dinner looking for something to love, and rarely even came back with something to like.
The bigger entrées likewise offered a few easy perches and a great number of tougher landings. The Swedish meatballs are creamy and light, the mashed potatoes taste like real potatoes (in contrast to those potatoes that taste merely like a pound of butter), and the showering of the plate with minced fried chicken skin is a welcome innovation, providing both a nice textural pop and good salt.
And yet, the challenges: Cod with cabbage was nothing but earthy and sulfurous notes, made gummy; the glazed pork cheeks with blood sausage tasted like gooey salt and a great deal of pickled carrot; the rib-eye was buried under a vast mountain of more pickled carrots, now grated, and some rye crumbs the kitchen seems to shovel out the door like hay. It felt like the answer to a ruse: How can a rib-eye be turned into the opposite of a rib-eye? All the vinegar ruined the beef. My challenge is, can I recommend a restaurant like that? No one gets out of Upton 43 at dinner without a great number of challenges.
Everything is easier at brunch. The twin nominees for the best dish at Upton 43 are the beef tartare smørrebrød and the gravlax smørrebrød; let me swoon my praises: The salmon is ethereal as mist, and the innovative egg butter (sort of like egg salad, but richer and denser), which acts as the connector between good bread and delicate fish, is a brilliant development in open sandwich–making, acting as sort of an earth layer of interest between the ground of the bread and the floaty sky of the gravlax. The beef tartare is devourable; raw and pristine bits of freshest beef gilded with rich dots of egg yolk gel, anchovy emulsion, and a chimichurri sauce of carrot tops that brings both spice and a needed jolt of grounding bitterness. “See, that’s why I’m playing with carrot tops,” Harcey told me when we talked about the dish. Touché. I could rave about most all of the brunch list with pancakes as delicate as linen handkerchiefs, made impressive with pretty au vif segments of citrus jewels and fresh pastry cream. And the sous vide wood-grilled cured pork shoulder called a bacon steak is as good as candy. Perfect Burger fanatics, take heed!
But do you want to pay $22 for it? Or $14 for pancakes? The restaurant is going with the innovative and challenging—at Upton 43 always!—new way of pricing: The tip is included in the menu price. I think this is the right thing to do in terms of economic justice for all workers and for restaurant owners being able to run things the way they think is best. But still. What is a $50 bottle of wine when the tip is included? A $40 wine? It’s hard to drop the intuition that those two things are different. Speaking of wine, the list—still in progress at this writing—is currently small and focused on small producers with delicate wines that may wither in the face of many of these experimental flavors.
The ceaseless challenges and innovations are most uniformly successful in the desserts, by pastry chef Louisa Farhat, who just returned home from cooking in Chicago at spots including Girl & the Goat. Farhat has a real affinity for those Northern flavors you find at the edge of forest and meadow, like dried rosehips, the bark of birch trees, and blueberries and honey. Her dessert board for the tasting menu is nothing but sweet fun and adventure. Farhat’s marvelous Soder tea cremeux uses the flavors of cardamom, ginger, and tea to season a tangy yogurt-based sort of pudding; it’s served at the bottom of a bowl in a sort of lean-to house constructed of tangy and smoky burnt honey meringue shards and white chocolate. “It’s my little Hansel and Gretel witch’s house,” Farhat told me. She says she likes the freeform aesthetic of shards and crumbs because it looks pretty and saves time. I’m all for eating avant garde shards when they’re as tasty as these.
When you’re catching just the right dishes at Upton 43 and sitting within the vast whitewashed walls, perhaps upon a Swedish blue-and-white chair, maybe just detecting the lovely fireplace smells of the open oak grill, everything can feel just right. The chefs are happy in the kitchen pushing their boundaries, the diners are happy in their seats supporting the progress of art and eating tasty shards. Are shards really any worse than chocolate curls? They used to be on every cake. I haven’t seen a chocolate curl in a new restaurant in years.
Progress from curl to shard typically happens slowly, too slowly to detect. At Upton 43, progress is happening fast—super fast—and can be as hard to truly understand as a plate of lutefisk made modern. 4312 Upton Ave. S., Mpls., 612-920-3406, upton43.com