Cafe Reviews

The Upton in Old Town Scottsdale Does New American Cuisine Right

As a genre of cooking, New American — sometimes also called Modern American, among other names — is about as impossible to define as the American character itself. Nobody, it seems, can agree on exactly what it is, although you’ll often see the label applied to a certain kind of casual yet high-toned restaurant with a globally inspired catalog of dishes, a place where you might find Japanese ingredients prepared with Mexican techniques, or vice versa, and where Southern fried chicken sits comfortably next to foie gras on the menu.

If you were tasked with designing a restaurant to represent this strain of so-called New American cuisine, you might well come up with something like The Upton, a polished yet laid-back Old Town Scottsdale restaurant and bar with a menu that defies easy categorization. The restaurant, which took over the space formerly occupied by the much-loved French restaurant Petite Maison back in late 2014, offers what you might call a borderless menu of refined eats that seems to playfully glom inspiration from disparate corners of the culinary universe, from backyard barbecues to food trucks to traditional fine dining. You might say that the theme here, if there is a theme, is etched in the restaurant’s signage, “A sanctuary for tastebuds,” which seems to imply a certain level of devotion to the simple fact of good-tasting food. And who can argue with that?

The menu’s eclectic sensibility is reflected in the space itself, which offers an appealing blend of indoor and outdoor spaces, including a chic outdoor patio with a graffiti-inspired “art wall” mural and wooden booths brightened up with colorful pillows and cushions. Inside, the dining room is more muted, with a long wooden bar overlooking a handful of dimly lit tables. But no matter which corner of the restaurant you occupy, the property’s lush greenery creates a kind of natural sound barrier designed to make you feel removed from the usual din and clamor of Old Town, even though you are within easy walking distance of Scottsdale Road.

Once you’re settled in, one of The Upton’s servers will dispatch the cocktail list, which includes modest but notable twists on classics, such as the Tonic & Gin, which puts emphasis on the tonic part of the drink. The bar uses the premium stuff, small-batch John’s Tonic, an alluringly old-fashioned concoction that imbues your drink with the cool notes of summery herbs and fruits. Then there is the Uptown Girl, a basil-blueberry muddled vodka drink that sounds light and goes down smooth, but is strong enough to bolster you through multiple small-plate courses.

The food menu has gone through several revisions since former chef Chris Schlattman helped open The Upton more than a year ago. Schlattman is no longer head chef at The Upton — John Vasquez is the kitchen’s current leader — but many of his dishes have become Upton standards. There are the crispy confit duck wings, for instance, from the starter menu. The extra-crispy wings, highlighted by a spicy-sweet Sriracha sauce, are crunchy and rich, if less meaty than you might expect.

Chinese char siu ribs are even better, the plate of roasted ribs glazed in a lovely, slightly sweet red sauce, then garnished with cilantro and chopped smoked peanuts. The sauce infuses every chewy morsel with rich, smoky notes of tangy sweetness. Still, there may not be a more indulgent and delicious starter than the Waygu bone marrow, which is packed with a foie gras pâté, deliciously creamy and so fatty it tends to dissolve across your tongue within seconds. For an extra five bucks, you can chase the pâté with a Scotch sidecar, designed to be poured down the hollowed luge of your bone, burning away the last traces of unctuous marrow from your palate.
There’s also a small menu of bao buns, of all things, which offers up an intriguing mix of flavors and textures. The Momofuko is a small bun stuffed with tender hunks of pork belly wrapped in a nutty hoisin sauce. There’s also the Seoul Satisfaction, another pork-based bun, this one garnished with an elegant Asian pear kimchi and served with a spicy, sweet-and-sour tiger sauce. The baos offer a tasty, unexpected tangle of flavors, but in the end, feel a tad too expensive for the couple mouthfuls you manage to extract from a single serving.

There’s also the usual offering of lighter entrees like salads and sandwiches, including a justifiably popular pressed Cuban sandwich called the Little Havana. The modest sandwich nails the simple yet wholly satisfying combination of roasted pork and ham, the whole thing deliciously melded together with a glossy heap of Swiss cheese.

For dinner, there might not be a more Uptonian entree than the Barbie doll risotto, a sort of hip take on the classic scallops-and-risotto bistro pairing. This version uses pureed beets to dye the risotto a bright, vivid shade of fuchsia pink. It’s a fun dish to look at, but it’s also a beautifully executed plate; the risotto is creamy and buttery, and still firm to bite, and the dish is highlighted by perfectly sautéed sea scallops served with softly sweet roasted carrots.

Southern fried picnic chicken, another Upton standard, offers a gently refined version of the comfort food. The moist, white chicken meat is sheathed under a buttermilk veneer of crispy, crackly skin, each chicken piece lightly drizzled with local amber honey. The deeply flavored honey is a small flash of kitchen brilliance, the sweetness mingling with and heightening the lush, fatty flavors of the fried chicken. The chicken comes with a cornbread cookie, perfect for dabbing the excess honey from your plate.

Another entrée, a slab of golden-seared salmon, is beautifully cooked, served with a smear of lemon Greek yogurt that brings out the subtle sweetness of the flesh. Then there’s the Angus bistro steak, which is bathed in a bright and citrusy chimichurri sauce that cuts through the richness of the meat. And there are, of course, tacos, offered here with a savory pork pibil filling, served with a crumbled cotija cheese and a smoky shishito pepper salsa. On a recent visit, the corn tortillas were served only slightly warm, causing them to nearly crack and split in places, but even that glitch couldn’t detract from the tender, flavorful pibil.
Dessert seems to change nightly at The Upton, and might include an appearance of donas, which are a staple of The Upton’s brunch menu (the restaurant offers a separate brunch menu on Saturdays and Sundays). The Mexican-inspired doughnut holes are exquisitely spongey on the inside, and rolled in a blend of cinnamon and sugar that may remind you of a hot-out-of-the-deep-fryer churro. There’s also a deconstructed Snickers candy bar sundae, with delicate scoops of vanilla ice cream embellished with squiggles of caramel and chocolate and lavished with handfuls of chopped nuts. Dessert may not always be particularly highbrow, but it’s nearly always playful and delicious.

As with most New American restaurants, The Upton’s menu reflects the usual obsession with seasonal ingredients of local provenance, but you may not even notice the organic meats and veggies listed on the menu. What comes out of the kitchen is usually whimsical, and nearly always very good, so that there’s rarely time for your taste buds to take notice of anything else.

The Upton
7216 East Shoeman Lane

Hours: 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays & Sundays; 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. lunch Thursdays & Fridays; 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. Fridays & Saturdays; 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. brunch Saturdays & Sundays; closed Mondays

Chinese char siu ribs $11
Waygu bone marrow $13
Barbie doll risotto with scallops $19
Southern fried picnic chicken $15