Upstate: In Search of Simplicity from the Sea

December 24, 2012

Tucked in a corner... 

Rating: ◊◊◊½

Growing up in a coastal city in Northern China, my family and I often bonded over large spreads freshly steamed fish, crustaceans and mollusks. We would drink, laugh and feast all night until there was nothing left but piles of empty shells and clean bones. It was during those wonderful meals that I fell in love with the unadulterated flavors of the ocean.

Now that I’m older (and living on a different continent), my heart and stomach are constantly looking for restaurants that remind me of those delicious feasts. This is what led me to Upstate.

Tonight's specials. It's hard to beat those prices. 
Perennially overshadowed by the massive garlands of Christmas lights that adorn a nearby string of Indian restaurants, Upstate is an understated, no-nonsense homage to succulent fruits de mer and hearty local beer. The restaurant features a selection of raw and cooked dishes that change as the seasons bring in different kinds of oceanic delights.

What a lovely little oyster fork!
A. and I began with half a dozen small East Coast oysters. While I unfortunately can’t remember the name of these briny fellows, they were crisp and sweet with plenty of liquor. Upstate lists its oyster selection from mildest to strongest and as someone who doesn’t care for deeper-shelled, pungent varieties, I found this little touch very helpful.

Slurp slurp slurp!

Does this look like a ceviche to you? We were (rightfully) hesistant.
In addition to the oysters, A. and I decided to try the red snapper ceviche. Although Upstate is known for its takes on ceviche, we found this iteration to be disparagingly unsuccessful. The dish featured thin slices of marinated snapper topped with finely chopped cured olives and capers – a deadly combination of salt upon salt. It seemed careless that a salt-water fish should be further dressed with high-sodium condiments. To make matters worse, the fish sorely lacked both acid and liquid, rendering its texture mealy and its flavor dull. Frankly, neither A. nor I could finish the full portion.

All my favorites in one pot...
Luckily, our main courses were much better. I ordered a bouillabaisse which featured salmon, scallops, mussels, clams and shrimp in a light white wine and onion broth. Everything was cooked perfectly. I was especially impressed with the salmon, which exuded just the right amount of fat to bind the dish together. My only critique is that I wished that the dish incorporated a bit of tomato, like in traditional bouillabaisse. The tartness of the tomatoes would have enhanced the natural sweetness of both the seafood and the onions.

They were just lying there - waiting to be devoured.
A.’s shrimp with cajun rice was also well-prepared. The dish consisted of four hefty, head-intact prawns placed neatly on top of a bed of meaty rice and beans. A. found it quite tasty but disliked the slightly bitter char on the shrimp and the soupy texture of the rice. I, on the other hand, thought the rice worked well with the creaminess of the prawn head fat.

A close-up of the cajun rice, which had a vaguely paella-esque quality.
As for drinks, Upstate has a respectable selection of local beers on tap. A. tried the Scythe and Sickle, an on-tap only, limited release amber ale from Ommegang. It was malty and full-bodied, yet not heavy. The harvest flavors of the beer worked well with the straightforward food.

Gotta love free cake!
Finally for dessert, we were presented with a complementary bite of the house’s whiskey cake – a warm, tasty and very hospitable way to end a meal.

Can you guess what season it is in this photo?
Overall, with the exception of the ceviche, I was grateful for the subtlety of Upstate’s offerings. It is very refreshing to eat great seafood that is not over-complicated by other ingredients. However, I do feel that Upstate still needs to improve before it can distinguish itself as a remarkable restaurant. While it has eschewed complexity for purity, Upstate’s dishes still lack the right balance for creating meaningful depth of flavor.

Even in those simply steamed seafood platters of my childhood, I remember tasting pinches of red pepper, thin slices of ginger and from time to time, a dash of soy sauce. In the same way, whether it’s a hint of spice or a touch of acid, Upstate should use those little touches to elevate the natural taste of its wonderful seafood to a higher level.

95 1st Ave
New York, NY 10003

Upstate: In Search of Simplicity from the Sea

Posted on

Monday, December 24, 2012

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