Upton 43 could be our new culinary royalty, if we’re ready to warm up to it

Iced pickles with elderflower granita, herbs, and flowers at Upton 43. Photo by E. Katie Holm.

Iced pickles with elderflower granita, herbs, and flowers at Upton 43. Photo by E. Katie Holm.

Upton 43 opened in the dead of winter. The interior seemed like an extension of the outdoors, all ice blue, sharp angles, bleached wood, austerity. You half expected to hear the crunch of snow beneath your boots.

This Linden Hills kitchen isn’t like other restaurants; it isn’t designed for comfort, or to welcome you like a warm bosom. Instead, it seems to exist to challenge, to shake us out of any comfort zone we thought we wanted, and to offer something else entirely. Something that won’t easily be lost in the shuffle of restaurants opening seemingly every week.

How you feel about Upton 43 will probably depend on how you feel about comfort. When I went with a foodie friend who lives within walking distance of the restaurant, she hadn’t been in yet. “I’ve been stalking the menu, but I don’t know what all that stuff is,” she confessed.

Iced pickles, elderflower granita, herbs and flowers, fermented lettuce, egg textures, anjovis, yogurt snow, honshimeji — the list goes on like this. This is not the kind of menu one peruses in hopes of finding a familiar favorite. This is the sort of menu that has to wash over you.

How you feel about Upton 43 will probably depend on how you feel about losing control.

And because so very many other restaurants seem designed for comfort and control, this one is an integral component of our growing restaurant scene if we are to stay as relevant as we like to think we are.

Hay-roasted pork chop with carrots, walnuts, onion, and sorrel. Photo by E. Katie Holm

Hay-roasted pork chop with carrots, walnuts, onion, and sorrel. Photo by E. Katie Holm

It helps that there is more than one way to use Upton 43. By night, it’s a place to stretch your expectations and boundaries. To consider the possibility of food as art.

By day, you can treat it like a somewhat ordinary lunchtime spot. While navigating the menu can indeed be a challenge, things are more familiar on the plate. Many items arrive “smorrebrod” style, riding atop a darkly toasted, thickly buttered dark rye. These open-faced sandwiches are an easy canvas for the likes of charred broccolini with a caramelized ring of onion and fine dusting of cheese, or house-cured salmon with “egg butter” that eats like a fine-dining version of egg salad.

Next to these choose a house salad or potato wedges, which, thanks to the wood-fired oven, eat like cream on the inside and potato chips on the outside. Dreamy.

Or choose the Swedish pancakes, chef Erick Harcey’s grandmother’s recipe, with tremendous chew, aroma, and character. A rye crumble over maple syrup nudges them ever so slightly back into savory territory. They’re real winners, too.

Harcey calls this restaurant an extension of himself. He’s Swedish through and through, having grown up on the cooking of his grandparents at Kaffe Stuga, a 50-year-old family restaurant in Harris, Minnesota, where a platter of Swedish meatballs goes for $7 on Sundays. He grew up eating the pickles, ferments, and flavors of the motherland that are so inextricably linked to his trajectory as a chef.

But here, pickles look a lot different than cukes in a jar. Elderflower granita provides an icy base and flowery balance to the brine and sourness of heavily pickled beets, strawberries, cucumbers, and cauliflower. Adorned with green tendrils of dill and flecked with herbs, it’s all pretty as a painting.

Pickled shrimp is not your grandpa’s tinned fish. Silver-dollar sized “tacos,” with slivers of celeriac in place of tortillas, hold a dollop of creamy shrimp salad inside. The four of them lined up on a plate are at once whimsical and austere, delicious, and memorable.

But lovely as these things may be, it’s difficult to think of them as crave-worthy. Returning to them for repeat business feels like a challenge.

Happily, a couple of the more entree-sized dishes could lure in even the most meat-and-potatoes man. The Swedish meatballs are another riff on Harcey’s grandparents’ cooking, the potatoes a snowy hill of fine potato puree with lawn-green flecks of chive, the meatballs actually pink and tender within, instead of sad and gray. A white gravy enriched with the umami essence of porcini mushroom envelops it all like a blanket.

The pork chop eats like a ribeye steak — all marbling and chewy fat, meaty enough to satisfy a Flintstone. It’s brined in a mixture that contains hay, then roasted again in hay, and while I don’t otherwise know what hay tastes like, I very much like this pork chop. It’s served with minimalist restraint — nothing more than some shaved and roasted carrots, charred onion, and walnuts. It’s a simple, beautiful thing.

Other items are less successful. When it comes time to order dessert, there’s no amount of massaging that can convince us we want roasted potato ice cream with smoked fudge, or beet sorbet with salted lemon. Some things are sacred. Some things ought to be comfortable, and dessert is one of them.

Despite the different ways to use this place, the varying angles from which to look at it, it’s still difficult to think of how to use it regularly. It’s too posh to dash in wearing jeans; a heavily marbled pork chop is still special occasion food; and meatballs at $22 are pretty dear.

I can’t help rooting for Upton 43, and rooting hard. Harcey admits that it’s a “playground” for him, and even as dining is turning away from the paradigm of letting a chef have his way with the diner, don’t we still want a few places like this one? Where surprise trumps the ordinary, where culinary skill is unmistakable, and where you sit up and pay attention, no slumping in a booth?

Harcey tells me a few changes are afoot. They’re expanding the lounge to make it more “comfortable.” Right now it only accommodates about 14 people, and unless you’re in it for a full dining experience, there’s no stopping for a quick drink and a snack, the way many of us like to eat these days. He says there may or may not be a separate menu to accommodate that new space. If one comes, will it be more “comfortable,” too?

There are fine lines between comfort and boredom, novelty and alienation. Upton 43 is walking a tightrope between them. If they can stick the sweet spot, we’ll all have a better dining town for it.

Pro tip: If it’s comfort you’re after, visit Dirty Bird, the Upton 43 annex at the back of the restaurant. Here you’ll find the mother of all comfort meals, the rotisserie chicken, which means you’ll pop the top and feed the whole family all in one flick of the wrist.

Their birds are far superior to any supermarket squawker, and sides are the kind that can make you feel good about not cooking. Macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes and gravy, slaw, collard greens, and more are all crowd-pleasers, but not overwrought.

Visit here, and you’ve got dinnertime completely under control.

Upton 43
4312 Upton Ave. S., Minneapolis