If the Midwest is the breadbasket of America, California is its vegetable garden, as well as its fruit orchard. In the 1970s, chefs in the Bay Area pioneered "California cuisine" through the simple yet revolutionary practice of frequenting nearby farms to get the best, freshest meat and produce in season. This was the birth of the foodie trifecta: fresh, local and seasonal. The style spread and, since the ability to prepare fresh, local, seasonal meals wasn't limited to California, the name of the resulting cuisine was updated to "contemporary American." But it didn't take long for that movement to meet the equally popular trend toward fusion cooking, in which salutary ingredients and techniques from a variety of cuisines are combined in new and (sometimes) exciting dishes. Although "American" is in some ways perfectly descriptive of a tempura shrimp tostada with jackfruit chutney, it doesn't seem all that accurate.
Fortunately, there is nothing nearly so egregious on the menu of Up Modern Kitchen, the latest in Shadyside dining. The name "Up" seems to derive naturally from the second-floor location; as for "Modern Kitchen," this vague-sounding moniker is utterly exact to experienced diners. It suggests not only the fresh and local aspects, but also the combinations of international cuisines hovering in the broad middle ground between austere simplicity and baroque complexity: butternut squash soup spiced with fresh ginger, or meatballs served over taleggio polenta and sauced with a port wine demi-glace. Up's is a mid-length menu ranging from "bites" to "small plates" to "plates" (entrees), as well as soups, salads and sandwiches. The variety is so great that it's hard to imagine a diner unable to find something enticing, although vegetarian options are few.
Almost everything enticed us. The aforementioned soup made an excellent first impression, lush and velvety, yet with a crisp flavor edge from the ginger, which evoked Thai pumpkin curry without enlisting the full artillery of herbs and spices. A small plate of duck confit combined autumnal ingredients — richly meaty duck, firm little beans, astringent tomatoes and smoky bacon — that might suggest a hearty stew, but the execution contrasted bright components against heartier ones to create a perfect end-of-summer bowl.
Subsequently, a lobster and rock-shrimp roll turned out to be a fairly straight take on the traditional lobster roll, albeit with a thick salsa pantellaria, similar to a salsa verde, providing vegetal kick. It worked, but it was also extraordinarily expensive, and the accompanying shoestring fries were by the book. For the price, we felt entitled to something extraordinary. Piri piri wings represented a fresh take on standard chicken wings, crisply roasted and served atop a spicy-sweet African chili sauce. Spicy-wing aficionados might find the flavor a bit tentative, but the accompanying raita, flavored with blue cheese, and cucumber were a clever update of the traditional dressing and celery sticks.
Bolognese gratin should have been a slam dunk of a dish: radiatore noodles tossed with meaty Bolognese (made with short rib and pancetta), topped with cheesy bread crumbs, broiled, and finished with meatballs. But it didn't quite sing, mostly because the bland and starchy ingredients overwhelmed the savory and piquant — and those flavors were dominated by salt. Of all the seasonings, salt stood out as the predominant note. The rest of the dish wasn't cheesy enough to be creamy, nor was it tomatoey enough to be bright. The meatballs, at least, were top notch, meaty and almost juicy and seasoned so as not be one-note.
Alaskan halibut arrived, like the princess and the pea, atop more than one bed. Directly underneath the fish was a layer of garlic broccolini, which rested, in turn, upon a scoop of risotto nero, whose rather shocking near-black color and slightly pungent flavor derived from squid ink. It was mild enough to provide a suitable backdrop to the meaty halibut, however, as well as the rather assertive broccolini, a cross between broccoli and Chinese broccoli whose flavor is not unlike asparagus. Arugula pesto, drizzled around the edges of the dish, provided a peppery counterpoint to the other ingredients' bitter-sweet flavor profiles.
Up Modern Kitchen earns its name, capturing the combination of casual ambience, sophisticated sensibility and eclectic approach that seems to go hand-in-hand with the fresh-local-seasonal credo. It's an exciting place to dine, though we did expect more consistent excellence for the prices.