Opened: December 2015
Location: Minneapolis, Minnesota
Owner: Chef Erick Harcey
Average Check: $90
Description: Upgraded Swedish staples guided by traditions, not trends.
If celebrity chefs are the new iteration of movie stars, then Chef Erick Harcey is the under-the-radar method actor. Eschewing all things flashy and shallow, the Minnesota native still lives in the country, about an hour’s drive from the posh Linden Hills neighborhood of Minneapolis, where his restaurant Upton 43 celebrated its first anniversary in December.
“The rock star chef thing has done its time. Now there are so many great restaurants and so many great chefs that it’s just based on true merit, the quality of the food, and the experience for the guest rather than who has the most tattoos,” Harcey says. “I never know how food trends work. I try to stay away from them, to be honest, because the trends fade so fast. I think people have just started to get more in touch with their heritage.”
As for culinary heritage, Harcey didn’t need to look far: His grandfather was a “purebred Swede” and a chef. And more so than his first concept, Victory 44—a gastropub darling that opened in 2009—Upton 43 pays homage to that background. Dishes including Swedish meatballs will be familiar to the masses, while others like gravlax (raw salmon cured with salt and dill) and ärtsoppa (a Nordic split-pea soup) are recognizable to some Minnesotans—particularly those of an older generation. Servers are at hand to explain the terminology and guide guests not hailing from the Land of 10,000 Lakes.
“When you look at the worldwide food scene, Nordic cuisine is pretty huge,” Harcey says, naming Chef René Redzepi’s Noma as a shining example. “It’s having a moment. Whether it keeps having one or not, I think it’s a super-relevant food. You take these extremely talented chefs who are squashing the clichés that it’s bland or basic. It’s actually a pretty complex cuisine when you dive into it.”
Harcey says staples like the Swedish meatballs, served with potato purée, pickles, and gravy, as well as pickled herring dishes, always perform well. At most restaurants, popular dishes find a permanent home on the menu, but Chef Harcey will sometimes remove high-volume dishes for the sake of variety. After all, he says, cooks get tired of preparing the same dishes over and over. Plus, guests are excited to see what new creations he’s dreamed up.
“I’m obviously a farm-to-table guy, but not in my message. I think it’s kind of a silly thing for a chef to be on a soapbox about using a local farm when it should be pretty obvious,” Harcey says. “I don’t do much with the farm-to-table movement. I think my [approach] is more about an emotion or a feeling that the guest relates to.”
Harcey’s fare may evoke that home-cooked feel, but the food—and drinks—retain that fine-dining sparkle. The dinner menu is divided into snacks, starters, mains, and sweets, with portions conducive to sharing. Snacks like Gouda Croquettes with lingonberry and charred onion give way to a Steak Tartare Smörgas with fermented garlic aioli and västerbotten (a Swedish hard cheese similar to Parmesan). Entrées can be hearty—Hay-Roasted Pork Chop and Beef Coulotte—or a bit lighter—Trumpet Royale Confit with ärtoppa and Grilled Salmon with licorice, dill, and linseed. Sweets include a Chocolate Potato Cake with roasted potato ice cream and a fan-favorite: Elderflower Ice with buttermilk curd, fresh berries, and herbs.
The beverage menu includes classic cocktails like Vertigo and Aperol Sour, as well as switchels, an old New England specialty. Also known as “haymaker’s punch,” these non-alcoholic concoctions are made in-house with a vinegar and soda water base. Flavors change with the season, and past variations have included quince and rosehip or cucumber and ginger. Harcey calls it a good digestif, and while it might not have been his intention, the switchels dovetail with increasing interest in fermented drinks such as sour beers and kombucha.
When Upton 43 first opened, Chef Harcey described it as “Swedish with a side of hillbilly,” but the décor is decidedly modern with minimalist royal blue booths and long pendant lights overhead. The bar area is cozier, with planked walls, a speakeasy-style full bar, and a grouping of architectural chairs and couch around a coffee table.
“When you’re at Upton, I want you to feel like you’re at my home. When you walk in, you smell the wood-fired grill—that makes you feel like you’re in a cabin with a fireplace,” Harcey says. “There’s a little bit of discomfort in the fact that we’re modern and sleek-looking, but it’s all instantly tempered by gracious hospitality and making sure people feel really welcome and comfortable.”
Chef Harcey’s hospitality isn’t just reserved for dinner guests. He also invites local chefs to Upton 43 about three to four times a month. These Chef’s Table events allow his friends to cook the dishes they love in a laid-back atmosphere. Harcey says this is a special opportunity not only for guests but also for the chefs, because “when you get really jamming as a chef, you don’t get as much time cooking as you would think.”
Just as Harcey likes to keep a sense of spontaneity around chefs’ nights, he’s also open to future possibilities. The father of four young boys cherishes his family time and is also an avid fisherman (he says he could happily spend all day butchering fish). But with two successful full-service restaurants up and running, chances are the Twin Cities have not seen the last of Harcey’s vision.
“I’ve always got ideas in the works, but then sometimes I get home and see my kids and it’s like, ‘Man, I really like this, too.’ So you never know,” he says. “I may just take it easy for a little while, or if the right opportunity comes, I’ll open a couple more things. Who knows?”