I suppose I should own it off the top, but Upper Bar Ferdinand isn’t exactly a restaurant.
It’s certainly more of one than its Melrose Market sibling, Lower Bar Ferdinand, which is just a wine bar and bottle shop. But instead of offering the usual conventions—more than one nonalcoholic drink, for instance, or more than two entrees—Upper Bar Ferdinand shrugs an elegantly angular shoulder.
Think of it instead as a screen grab from the ongoing dream sequence that is Matt Dillon’s prodigious imagination. The image: Japanese seafood, glorious wine.
This idiosyncratic restaurateur has broken with conventional wisdom before, at the original tiny Sitka and Spruce, the family-style Corson Building. But his openings since then have increasingly inclined toward convention, especially in service.
Our servers at Upper Bar Ferdinand were evidence: efficient, unpretentious, gentle hearted. One bore a platter of grilled rainbow trout, which she set carefully on our table with clay-pot rice, shiitakes, and radishes. With deft consideration she showed how to dig our curved chopsticks into the ball of nori-sheathed sticky rice—crisped top and bottom in caramelly soy glaze—and spear a spicy radish, perhaps, or a bit of trout if we liked (oh, we liked). The trout literally melted on our tongues, enhanced by myriad shadings of umami.
The food is all like this—unscripted, elemental, madly unbound by expectation. A plate billed as “freshly dug radishes, Jersey milk butter, and chive flowers” arrived, along with slices of the London Plane’s brown, crusty bread and unbilled strips of salted pork, to create improbably successful couplets of flavor and texture. (Though pork should probably not arrive anywhere without full disclosure, being pork.) A chicken joint, golden roasted and splayed atop yogurt, arrived pocked with tender turnips, their greens rising up from the meat like upraised hands, all to dissolve on the palate to a finish of rich brown butter. Cultures merge here—across the menu, yes, but even from taste to aftertaste.
Dillon genuflects before freshness (that chicken was running around just hours earlier) along with an almost monkish ethic of simplicity and a muse he refuses to deny. “I’m getting more minimalist with every restaurant,” Dillon admits. “I wanted to make a very limited menu and have the limitations be the focus.” Apart from fridge and freezer, only five implements in this kitchen require electricity. So much of the produce and meat derive from his island farm, he rejects the Japanese-with-hints-of-Europe label many will place on the menu, branding the cuisine he and chef Sun Hong make as “Vashon island.”
What ultimately renders UBF so satisfying is the hand-hewn, elemental aesthetic of the food reflected in the Chophouse Row space—a masterpiece of raw wood, exposed beams, and cool concrete where hard corners, lively angles, and primal Dillon signatures, meat locker to wood oven, conspire to deliver the world’s most sophisticated sense of cozy. Come for a glass of intelligently curated wine, a bottle to go, a nibble, a meal; be in New York, perhaps an English mews, make that a tribal village. Or, you know, Vashon island.