The look on Erick Harcey’s face — and the tone in his voice — was unmistakable: sheer, unadulterated pride.
Tempered, of course, by Midwestern-by-way-of-Scandinavian reticence.
Not that I was expecting heartfelt emotion from pickled fish. Or Swedish meatballs, for that matter. But this is a restaurant that tells a story, beautifully.
“These are the dishes I grew up eating,” said Harcey, echoing the sentiments of what are probably tens of thousands of local diners.
When he was first brainstorming Upton 43, Harcey was initially planning a much different operation.
But then he got talking to his grandfather, Willard Ramberg, who suggested that his talented grandson try something that was more reflective of his background.
As it happens, that heritage was developed over the course of thousands of meals around the Rambergs’ table. Sadly, Willard Ramberg died in December, shortly before the restaurant opened.
That herring is a revelation. Harcey gives the small Atlantic fish a nine-day pickling, and the results are firm and coolly, refreshingly clean-tasting. No wonder it was served at every dinner at the Rambergs. I want to make it a daily habit, too.
As for the meatballs, they’re based on years of watching his grandmother Bonnie Ramberg go through her well-practiced paces.
“We had meatballs so often, and they were always a little different each time,” said Harcey. “They were definitely a rummage-the-fridge kind of thing, but she had a classic way that she prepared them.”
A mix of beef and pork (and pork fat), they’re fortified with onions simmered in plenty of butter (“I didn’t earn this body by not figuring out how to incorporate butter into everything,” Harcey said with a laugh), and seasoned with cardamom, allspice, nutmeg and other warming spices.
Rather than getting the pan-fried treatment, they’re roasted in the oven. Just before they’re served they get a quick steam using fatty pan drippings, and then they’re drenched in gravy.
Oh, that gravy. Harcey said it’s definitely where he and his grandmother part company (“I had to umami it up,” he said), relying instead on a brown butter béchamel that’s enriched with a mushroom-roasted shallot stock. He could bottle it, and make millions.
There’s no lutefisk on the menu (give Harcey 48 hours’ notice, and he’ll happily prepare lutefisk his grandfather’s way), but cod isn’t left out in the dark.
Rather than marinating it in lye, Harcey quick-sears it, brushes it with a creamy mustard, presses it into a walnut-puffed wild rice crust, then roasts it until the moist, pearly flesh flakes apart at the slightest pressure from a fork.
Fermented grapes add a bracing dash of sweetness, and the fish is served under an umbrella of butter-poached purple cabbage. So pretty, and so tasty.
The topper? Butter-laden mashed potatoes, blended with slow-roasted cabbage ends and hints of apple and onion. And, yes, they’re fantastic.
Embracing the old, and the new
Family heirloom recipes aside, the kitchen’s most remarkable dish is vegetarian, a departure for a chef whose work at Victory 44 is notably pork-centric.
Part porridge, part risotto, it’s a blend of four or five nuttily toasted grains — an ever-changing variety that often includes farro, wheatberry, millet and barley — that Harcey accents with tart apples, a sweet onion confit, earthy porcini mushrooms and a rich sunchoke purée.
The final flourish is a meticulously composed vegetable broth, a marvel that’s nurtured to a beef demiglace’s brawny heftiness. Add it all up, and the results are astonishingly delicious.
A close second, however, is Harcey’s take on one of his favorite vegetables. It’s the frequently ignored celeriac, its versatility showcased by presenting it through the prism of a handful of different cooking techniques. The crowning touch? Truffle-like shavings of cured, dried and smoked celery root. Brilliant.
The soups? Stunners. And two snacks practically beg to be enjoyed while drinking through the authoritative beer list. A supple chicken liver purée, capped by a golden honey-vinegar gelée, practically spreads itself on crisp granola-based crackers, and a playful take on cheese curds — it’s a mild goat’s milk Gouda, processed like American cheese and peppered with day-old rye bread — that Harcey turns Swedish by adding lingonberries. A cliché, but it works.
Desserts follow a similar vanguard path. Most memorable is Harcey’s homage to his grandfather’s favorite after-dinner pick-me-up: a double dose of tapioca and ice cream.
Well, sort of. Harcey channels his love for panna cotta in the like-minded form of a luscious, juniper-scented bavarois, pairing it with an icy, carrot-flavored granité that fully exploits that root vegetable’s inherent sweetness. It’s a quirky, colorful compare/contrast talker with an appeal that grows with every spoonful.
Kudos also to the rye blini — and their delicate sourdough tickle — cleverly finished with birch-infused ice cream and brightly fermented blueberries.
A return to tipping
“We made it clear going in that we were trying something,” said Harcey. “It takes people experimenting, and failing, and experimenting again, to make progress.”
When the environment is this forward-thinking, it’s easy to forgive the glitches. Beef aged for four months had the requisite funkiness, but lacked a similarly luxuriant texture. An apple-onion tart was sweet enough for dessert, and would be a suitable replacement for an uncharacteristically too-sugary rice pudding. Swedish pancakes were clumsily blanketed under a tone-deaf combination of lemon curd and honey.
They’re a cornerstone of the restaurant’s all-day brunch menu. Better to go with one or more of the half-dozen exceptional smørrebrød (open-face sandwiches), each a case study in composition and construction (skip the pickled herring-horseradish version at your peril) and made with a sturdy Patisserie 46 rye.
Other wise choices include a gorgeous and hearty root vegetable hash that’s accented by a tangy dollop of cottage cheese, and a hefty ham steak, paired with tenderly cooked eggs.
The serenely sophisticated setting echoes Nordic asceticism without going overboard.
By day, it’s welcoming and sunny. After sunset, it becomes what might be the city’s most gracefully illuminated dining room. The kitchen’s oak-burning grill sends out a quietly smoky scent that’s as warmly enveloping as a favorite hand-knit afghan.
Turns out, the tables (handmade, from ash, and gorgeous), particularly the ones in the booths, are plus size for a reason.
“I want people to fill them with food, and hang out, and share,” said Harcey. “That’s how it felt when we were eating at Grandpa and Grandma’s. Everything at their house was built around the table. It was always happy and joyous, and I wanted that feeling at the restaurant.”
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