Even before you open the glass front door, Upstairs sends you a message. Just beyond the door looms a narrow staircase glowing a seductive blue. The steps are slabs of frosted glass illuminated from within. You ascend to the second floor on plateaus of blue light. What could have been a humdrum and possibly claustrophobic trudge instead has a little magic to it.
The same can be said of the restaurant, which opened just over a year ago in the space above Dai-Kichi, a long-running Japanese restaurant.
The captivating design of Upstairs—the glowing staircase; the 12-seat, glass bar lit by a forest of dangling pin lights; the wavy, illuminated ceiling panels; the centrally located, open kitchen; and much else—sprouted from the fertile imagination of Aki Kaneda, the owner of both Dai-Kichi and Upstairs. But credit for the new restaurant’s hip, relaxed atmosphere, its urbane bar scene and its sophisticated yet approachable food belongs primarily to two 35-year-old Montclair natives, general manager Scott Hirschberg and chef David Van Morrelgem.
I first tasted Van Morrelgem’s cooking last winter in a meal that began with uncommonly good potato-leek soup. The key, he told me in a recent phone interview, is using not only leeks but onions, garlic and shallots, and deeply caramelizing them to bring out their sweetness. That dinner also included one of Van Morrelgem’s seasonally changing preparations of the ethereal, house-made ricotta gnocchi. That one involved braised short ribs (shredded like pulled pork), sprinkled with a gremolata of lemon zest, garlic and bread crumbs. Last spring, the gnocchi came with sautéed cremini, shiitake and oyster mushrooms, basil salt and Parmigiano-Reggiano. In late July, the little pillows cozied up with baby heirloom tomatoes, house-made pork sausage and more Parmigiano-Reggiano. All three were rich and satisfying.
Van Morrelgem began cooking at home at age 12, trying recipes from Cook’s Illustrated and persevering through “a lot of failures.” He learned classical technique at a French restaurant in Vermont, cooked in Boston restaurants for a few years, then returned to Jersey, eventually becoming head chef at a country club down the Shore. In that can’t-please-everyone job, he said, “I got burned out” and spent the next several years building cabinets for a cousin who owns a construction company.
In late 2010, Hirschberg, a pal since their days at Montclair High School, got Van Morrelgem to hang up his hammers and saws and renew his romance with ladles and whisks. After years in the restaurant business himself, Hirschberg was then in the process of convincing Kaneda to bag his original plan for the second floor (an upscale Japanese steakhouse) and go with a New American concept instead. He brought in his old buddy as a consultant. “I was trying to find him a chef,” Van Morrelgem said. “At some point, Scott said, ‘Why don’t you do it?’ And I said okay.”
They started slowly, with a small, market-driven menu, no publicity campaign and no signage but the word Upstairs printed inconspicuously on the glass front door. Coffee service was an afterthought. Not until May did they begin to offer a few house-made desserts. The champ is a dark-chocolate mocha cake with fresh strawberry mousse between the layers and chocolate ganache drizzled on top.
Alerted by the local blogosphere, Montclair foodies beat a path to the shimmering staircase. Upstairs they found three distinct areas, each with its own appeal. Up front is the attractively lit glass bar, where you can eat or drink, and a three-sided booth that serves as a lounge. The bar area often draws couples and small groups in their 20s and 30s, sipping cocktails and grazing from tasty small plates such as the foie gras torchon with bourbon-soaked cherries or the baby-arugula salad, lately dressed with pecans, grilled peaches, peach vinaigrette and crumbled cheddar.
Like the kitchen staff—which Van Morrelgem emphasized “is not a one-man show”—the bartenders, overseen by bar manager Joe Landolfi, 29, work as a creative team. Their best-selling invention since early on has been the Im-pear-ment. Hardly the discombobulator the name suggests, it is a lip-smacking combination of pear nectar, prosecco and St. Germain liqueur. For summer, Landolfi introduced what he calls a White Manhattan, subbing white (unoaked) Death’s Door whiskey from Wisconsin for the traditional rye and, instead of dry vermouth, a clear, sweeter Italian vermouth. In the white whiskey, he said in a phone interview, “you get more fruit and more from the grain. It reminds me more of tequila than traditional whiskey.”
Left of the bar a row of high tables faces the open kitchen, which has a narrow counter where servers pick up the finished dishes. The counter happens to be the perfect height for leaning on to exchange pleasantries with the chefs, which (within reason) they don’t mind.
Past the kitchen come the restrooms (with their much commented-on Japanese toilets with heated seats and self-opening lids) and beyond that, the pleasant, comfy dining room—the only space lacking a wow factor, unless you count the framed photographs of Upstairs under construction.
Servers proudly point out that the kitchen makes nearly everything from scratch—pickling vegetables as a side dish; making its own ricotta; smoking its own chicken, duck bacon and salmon. You won’t confuse the smoked salmon with the deli kind. It’s plump, moist, bright in color, delicately flavorful and delicious with its sidekicks—mache, house-pickled shallots, crème fraîche and oven-crisped salmon skin (dubbed “salmon bacon”) crumbled on top.
Speaking of bacon, over the summer Van Morrelgem put what he called a bacon steak on the menu as a small plate—a thick slab of applewood-smoked bacon, baked for two hours at low heat to render out all the fat. It comes out meaty in the middle and crunchy toward the ends. You have at it with knife and fork, spearing some house-pickled peaches and a dab of maple-mustard sauce. Mighty nice.
“I have a deep love of pig and pig products,” Van Morrelgem said. “I lived in the South for four years and got to enjoy all the wonderful, unhealthy stuff down there.”
So it’s no surprise that Upstairs always has a thick, 12-to-14-ounce pork chop among the large plates. Whatever the seasonal accompaniments (lately spicy black beans, jicama slaw and peach barbecue sauce), the chop is soaked in honey-flavored brine, then cold smoked and grilled. It’s a winner, and so is the grilled ribeye, at $32 the most expensive item.
That’s not to suggest the kitchen can’t do delicate. For proof, try the sea scallops or the red snapper. Last spring, the seared scallops came with snap peas, spring onions and a carrot purée. I don’t think I’ve ever had scallops paired with carrots before, but the two kinds of sweetness got along famously.