Stairway to Heaven

An old favorite returns

After a brief hiatus, caused by the impending renovation of the Hasty Pudding Theater, UpStairs at the Pudding has returned. Except it is now located a tiring two minute walk away in Winthrop Square. Thank goodness the new site also has a staircase, leading to the daring new name of UpStairs on the Square.

The restaurant, which opened in late November, has forsaken the traditional ambience of the old location for a daring redesign by co-owner Deborah Hughes. UpStairs on the Square’s website describes the new décor as “a throwback to 1940s glamour with a modern twist.” And, boy, what a twist. With leopard skin-patterned carpets—except for the zebra-themed Veranda Room—and an explosion of not-quite-clashing pastel colors on the wall, the décor wows even the least fashion-conscious of visitors. I couldn’t help but think that Ray Charles would be distracted from his meal by the restaurant’s appearance, which is equal parts Liberace and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

Razzle-dazzle is an important part of the UpStairs on the Square experience. Those who are in search of an oak-paneled dining room with a laid-back filet steak and a good bottle of red wine should look elsewhere. (Grill 23 in Back Bay, in fact.) An evening at UpStairs on the Square is an extravaganza and you will not be allowed to forget it. En route to your table, a helpful hostess shows you the entire restaurant—isn’t the location of the wine cellar the business of the restaurant’s staff, not its customers?—and senior staff, including co-owner Mary-Catherine Deibel, work the room throughout dinner to check on your progress and satisfaction. Clearly, they are anxious to impress and, they largely succeed. To that end, there are two different range dining options: a more informal lunch and dinner service in the second floor Monday Club Bar and a high-end dinner service Monday to Saturday in the Soiree Room, for which one must climb two flights of stairs. Neither is ideal for the student budget, but both are excellent local spots to encourage loving families to visit when in town.

The table service in the Soiree Room was exemplary, attentive but not cloyingly so: many fine restaurants in the Boston area and far beyond would do well to copy the example of UpStairs on the Square. It was refreshing at last when enjoying a fancy meal to trade in the ubiquitous Hugo Boss-clad pretty boys who snarl at every request in favor of a shockingly old-fashioned staff, keen to accommodate the customer.

The food is, on the whole, very good indeed. Then again, at $50 a head, it should be. An amuse bouche of steak tartare atop crisply toasted crostini was brought immediately after ordering. It was the highlight of the evening. The meat was clearly of the highest quality, its richness offset by a piquant dribble of mustard and several capers. It should, perhaps, become a proper appetizer—two bites is simply not enough. Even my dining companion, an occasionally cautious eater, became an instant convert to the uncooked lifestyle.

A watercress soup was dramatically decanted at the table from a small jug into a square bowl (presumably in keeping with the new name) in the center of which sat a small piece of lobster tail. The appearance was stunning, the soup a deep green that would have seemed more at home on a canvas than at a dinner table. That said, it should have been warmer—a frequent problem—and desperately needed more salt. Salt and pepper shakers are not put on the table, a rather affected touch, it seems, and if management is determined to pursue that strategy, they must ensure that all food is properly seasoned. A salad of endive and artichoke dressed with “red wine cream” was better, an arresting blend of textures and, again, an example of UpStairs on the Square’s focus on the visual, coming piled in a pyramid, centered on another square plate.

A generous entrée portion of scallops was served with celery root, pancetta and pear, and showcased the restaurant’s commitment to serving fresh ingredients. The waiter made a point of explaining that although the menu advertised Nantucket Bay scallops, the recent cold snap had necessitated a switch to Maine diver scallops which were easier to fish in frigid waters. The scallops were perfectly cooked, treading the fine line between undercooked slipperiness and the off-putting elastic band texture that can result when they are left in the pan too long.

A daily special of two different types of rabbit—leg stewed with spring greens and loin stuffed with mushrooms and wrapped in pancetta—was superb. The stew in particular was a juicy and soft-tangled reduction, perfectly offset by the bite of the greens, and will linger long in the memory.

Desserts are, like the rest of the meal, pricey, running about $10—but worth the effort, especially since a trip to UpStairs on the Square is likely to coincide with a special occasion. A fresh citrus salad is served beneath two scoops of fresh, not excessively-sweetened tangerine sorbet and provides a zingy way to cleanse the palate and refresh stuffed patrons. Diners possessing large appetites will enjoy the apple pain perdu, a grown-up version of French toast that is surprisingly light.

UpStairs on the Square is a welcome addition to the Harvard Square restaurant scene. Regulars of the old restaurant at the Pudding will be glad to see that the food—and Sunday brunch a cappella performances by the Krokadiloes—have remained unchanged. The Kroks may well now find their black tuxedos UpStaged by the wild pink and purple wallpaper, but there is always the possibility that they may get a similar makeover when they are finally forced to leave their Hasty Pudding home during renovations. A cappella fans anxiously await the leopard skin possibilities.

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