Erick Harcey, chef/owner of north Minneapolis' Victory 44 and now Upton 43 in Linden Hills, has four sons under the age of 10. He lives an hour outside of the cities because he "needs to live in the woods," and rises at 5 a.m. every morning without fail to go fishing. He wears a camo jacket from Fleet Farm and a black and red checkered hat, a la Elmer Fudd.
None of this would be apparent upon entering Upton 43, a space that feels straight out of Manhattan — all ice-blue light, sanded Ash tables, and brushed steel. Designer silverware sits elegantly in brass holsters and the ceramics that provide the base for your fried goat gouda with kale and lingonberry are art pieces in and of themselves. Any comparisons to IKEA are unfounded — it's far richer than that. And then there's the food.
Minneapolis has probably never seen a restaurant like this one. Upton 43 is a complete anomaly in a town that is going ever more casual, ever more something-for-everyone, with spaces and menus that appeal to your sense of the familiar.
In practice, these dishes feel highly conceptual and somewhat luxe. But Harcey says they are a love letter to his Swedish grandparents, who were farmers and fishermen and avid cooks, having run a longstanding and beloved family restaurant, Kaffe Stuga, in Chisago County. The chef grew up heavily influenced by lingonberry, lutefisk, and all the rest. But he pushes things a lot further than annual lutefisk buffets. This is no home cooking place; that is, unless you look very closely.
A haute-looking sphere of foie-like mousse is really chicken liver with blueberries and a rustic granola cracker.
Warm grains with sunchoke, apple, truffle, and onion petal are inspired by his growing up on grains, a workaday breakfast to provide fuel for 5 a.m. wake-ups. It was all he could do to toss in some sugar and choke it down. How, he wondered, could he make them good? Like this:
As a self-professed junk food junkie, Harcey says he hates salad. How could he make salad good? Here, he ferments the lettuce so that it takes on a singular tang and texture, then plies it with the richness of egg yolk, walnut, and buttermilk.
In short, Upton 43 is a highly ambitious restaurant. Erase from your brain all notions of the somewhat down-home vibe of Victory, with its burgers, bloody beers, and loaded bacon fries.
This space, while stunning, borders on stark. The cuisine is intellectually challenging, and will likely rely on a customer base with deep-seated feels, understanding, and childhood references to Scandinavian cooking. It also will rely on diners with deep pockets — price points are not trivial ones: that clever bowl of grains is $24. Entrees soar into the above $40 range. They'll serve dinner until 11 p.m. daily, as well as their equally ambitious brunch program every day until 4 p.m.. (Brunch every day!) But even there, prices start in the low teens and go up above 20 bucks. (It should be noted that the gratuity is included at Upton— they are one of the increasing number of restaurants that are including the service charge in their prices. Is Minneapolis ready for this trend? Time will tell, as sticker shock can be a factor).
Again, it ain't Victory. But does it need to be? We hope not. We hope Minneapolis is ready for this restaurant. If we are, it will be a clear-cut indicator that we are growing up into the world-class food city that we think we are. While we've opened a couple hundred establishments in a couple years, three of the finest have closed in the last handful of weeks: La Belle Vie, Vincent, and most recently, Brasserie Zentral, another high-concept project focused on Eastern European fine dining. If we want to keep Upton 43 in our purview, we'll need to find reasons to use it beyond special occasions. Restaurants need to be full every day. Will we be able to do it?
In a savvy move, Harcey will be opening a casual annex to Upton 43 in the coming weeks. Dirty Bird is a place where rotisserie chicken with all the sides will be available to grab and go, along with housemade condiments and other "healthy farm" fare. We have zero doubt that diners will find plenty of use for this, because what household doesn't need that service, at least a couple times a week? If I were a restaurant consultant, I might advise Harcey to flip-flop the two concepts, a la Nighthawks/ Birdie. Let the casual side of things fund the more ambitious business of fine dining, and limit the high concept, high price dining to a few nightly seats filled by very interested parties who are willing to purchase tickets to the show.
But I'm not, and Harcey hasn't asked, and so we will keep an eye on this most interesting project. In the meantime, do not miss the dessert of rye pancakes, with birch ice cream, blis elixir (a very fancy way to say maple syrup), and blueberries. They eat like the pancakes of your childhood, amplified to an extent that it opens long closed doors to a place where your Nana was still alive and doting on you, merrily.
That, for me, is more than worth the price of admission. That, to Harcey, is the ultimate ambition: to evoke food that makes people happiest.
Note: Upton 43 is currently without a liquor license. They hope to have it in hand within a couple of weeks.
Update: as of Thursday, January 21st, Upton 43 has secured their liquor license. Drink up.
4312 Upton Ave. S., Minneapolis