What’s up at Upstairs? The trendy Upper Montclair bar and restaurant, has undergone quite a few changes recently, including the departure of general manager, Scott Hirschberg, and other staff. But so what? Montclair’s restaurant scene is ever in flux; restaurants open, close, reinvent, and retool regularly. Why should a personnel shuffle be a headline? Because Chef Trevor Perkins, the 31 year-old chef, and Verona native, has been named executive chef by owner of Upstairs, Aki Kaneda.
Since Upstairs opened in 2011, it was well received by critics and locals alike, but had become as known for its ascending blue staircase and automatic, heated toilet, as it was for its cuisine. Perkins intends to change this and bring the cuisine to the forefront. He’s got the chops, too; his resume includes restaurants like Highlawn Pavilion, as well as the highly acclaimed Marea in New York City. Prior to receiving the call from Kaneda, Perkins had arranged to do staging in San Francisco at Benu and Atelier Crenn.
Under Perkins direction, the menu at Upstairs is being revamped, and according to Perkins, will be “micro-seasonal.” Perkins says, “components of the menu may change as frequently as every other day.” But that doesn’t mean pretentious dining. Perkins is committed to making the dining experience “fun and creative,” but prides himself on being able to “spot quality amongst falsified products.” This is why the seafood at Upstairs will now be sourced from purveyors who provide fish for some of New York City’s finest restaurants.
Mr. Hot and I visited Upstairs last Friday to try some of Chef Perkins’ new dishes. We made ourselves comfortable at a two-top parallel the bar. Mr. Hot sipped a smooth blood orange Old Fashioned, and I enjoyed a big glass of Once Cabernet.
Before our first small plate arrived, Perkins sent over an amuse of blood orange cured wild King Salmon with aerated vichyssoise. He plans to incorporate an amuse into the weekday dinner service. This spoon-served, one bite amuse was smooth and well-balanced; the salmon had a pristine, clean finish, while the vichyssoise was light and aerated.
Then, our first small plate arrived – grilled prawns accompanied by an aromatic toasted banana puree, grilled radicchio and crumbled hazelnuts ($16). The prawns were charred and moist, and the head was a bombshell of creamy, oceanic goodness. With this dish, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the treatment of vegetables. A charred wedge of radicchio, grilled to the early wilting point, evidenced the flavors of early spring. The bitterness and crunch of the inner leaves was retained, while the outer layers exhibited a smoky char. A slight carmelization was accentuated by dollops of reduced balsamic. The toasted banana puree – a clever reinvention where fruit acts as a starch – was nothing short of a revelation; smooth and not cloyingly sweet, it was an absolute charmer.
We shared a second small plate of short ribs with carrot fraiche, spring onions, and farro ($14). The dish was a beauty to behold; colorful and bold. The meat was spoon-tender. I wondered why the server would bother providing a steak knife! The vibrant, yet earthy carrot fraiche was an engaging departure from the typical, sweeter puree that short ribs are often accompanied by. The inclusion of carrot demonstrated Perkins’ spring-forward culinary instinct. Atop of the short ribs, Perkins sprinkled roasted farro that added a remarkable nuttiness to the dish, and exhibited Perkins’ patience to coax the best a component has to offer.
For our large plate, Mr. Hot and I shared a delectable wild striped bass with parsnip puree, fennel and lemon ($28). The striped bass did not disappoint; moist, with a crisp, savory skin, and meaty presence on the palate, the fish was as good as any I’ve had at other acclaimed Montclair restaurants. With this dish, Perkins again demonstrated an innate, almost artistic handling of the vegetable – in this case, fennel. The bass was perched atop two different fennel preparations; one, grilled, with light char and deep flavors, and the other, a light, crisp, citric fennel salad. Delicate fennel fronds topped the parsnip puree and added just a dash of anisette and brightness to the dish. This expression – fennel two ways – did justice to a vegetable that should not be relegated to Sambuca sipping. In Perkins’ hands, fennel is treated like the all-star it is.
Perkins plans to develop more of the dessert program at Upstairs, which was essentially absent under the previous chefs. That evening, Mr. Hot and I had a smooth and remarkably refreshing blood orange panna cotta ($10).
Perkins’ philosophy is that “we’re here for the guests.” While he cautions that he wouldn’t welcome a request for a cheeseburger, he is very sensitive to dietary restrictions and will, within reason, try to accommodate the likes and dislikes of guests.
And this isn’t just talk. While sitting at our table, I overheard Chef Perkins speaking to the table behind us, where two women ordered the Rib Eye steak to share. “Would you like me to cut that for you?” asked Perkins. “No,” the two ladies replied, “we’re fine.” “Are you sure?” replied Perkins, “I’d be glad to.” That’s customer service.