Saturday, April 10, 2010

Ubuntu - 04/08/2010

1140 Main Street
Napa, CA 94559
(707) 251-5656

Those who know me well know that I am an unabashed carnivore. Despite my bias, the vegetarian menu at Ubuntu managed to pique my curiousity. Under the leadership of Jeremy and Deanie Fox, Ubuntu garnered heaps of acclaim, including a Michelin star, and has become arguably the best vegetarian restaurant in the country. More importantly, they proved that being vegetarian is not a prerequisite for cooking exceptional vegetarian food.

Ubuntu is anchored by an open kitchen and dark wood bar, the dining room has a an airy feel courtesy of a high ceiling. The decor is a combination of bare urban pipework and rustic rough wood. In keeping with the healthy lifestyle image, the building also houses a yoga studio upstairs. The restaurant offers a selection of 10 "small" plates good for sharing as well as a trio of light snacks and 5 desserts for good measure. Ubuntu's menu requires a bit of explanation, words in all upper case represent ingredients grown in the restaurant's biodynamic garden, the (v) represents vegan dishes, astrisks mean the dish can be prepared vegan style, and italics are for foreign words. My companion and I decided to order everything on the menu in order to experience the restaurant properly. Our waiter actually did a double take when we told him we wanted one of everything and after the meal he said we were the first customers to do so.

French Sourdough
A milder but fairly prototypical sourdough sourced from a local farm whose name eludes me.

marcona almonds - LAVENDER sugar, sea salt (v)
The most addictive almonds I've ever had, the sugar and salt combination would have been a strong combination but the addition of soft floral lavender raised these to a level all their own. I'm going to try to recreate these at home.

castelvatrano olives - marinated in CARROT TOP pesto (v)
Not being a huge fan of olives, I wasn't thrilled by this course, though these were fairly mild and buttery working very well with the sweet vegetal twang of the pesto.

slow cooked chickpeas a la Catalan - sauce romesco, CORIANDER
I always think of chickpeas as a staple Indian vegetarian dishes though it was served here with a tangy sauce romesco rather than a spicy curry. The elegant freshness of the pea shoots that really tied the flavors of this course together.

CALCOT and lemongrass curry CHARD condimento & pickles (v) - 'picadura' NETTLES, whipped coconut, preserved lemon
Easily one of the strongest course of the night, the chilled yogurt and sweet coconut base were combined with a light curry spice giving the dish a Thai essence. Hidden within the soup were tangy pickles that added a splash of flavor and textural crunch to the creamy base.

'ruby queen' BEETS and their micros with whipped goat's milk * - torn brioche, pistachio pudding, honeyed pamplemousse
Root vegetables like beets are a great source of sweetness but when they headline a dish that makes it all to easy for it to become cloying. It was a good idea to use fresh grapefruit and bread to counter that sweetness but there just wasn't enough.

carta da musica, our homemade crispy Sardinian flatbread * - today's LEAVES barely dressed, truffled pecorino, orielles
This next course deserves its spot as Ubuntu's signature dish. The salad itself is immensely complex, nutty and vegetal with the light dressing adding a nice tang to the mix. The truffled pecorino adds a touch of elegance while the flatbread gives the whole mixture a toasty sapor. Who knew such a light dish could pack so much flavor.

seasons first 'orion' FENNEL, compressed - confit - puree * - our vadouvan, 'meyer' LEMON, FENNEL frond falafel
I normally love the depth of sweet herbal essence of fennel but I found this course far too astringent. The combination of the bitter vadouvan tart lemon with the fennel made for an overly medicinal flavor profile. The one bright spot was the savory fennel falafel that didn't taste all that different from the traditional chickpea falafel.

warm 'purple haze' and cool 'white satin' CARROT salad - 'tru green' FRISEE, local raspberries crushed in an HERB vinaigrette
Like beets, carrots can easily overwhelm a course with their sweetness but the kitchen handled this course much better than the earlier beet dish. The accompaniments were much bolder, their acidity contrasting well with the cooked purple haze carrots. The white satin carrots were served raw leaving their slightly bitter vegetal flavor intact while adding a superbly satisfying crunch to the dish. Kevin mentioned the herb vinaigrette reminded him of a ramen spice.

today's poached EGG on KOHLRABI crumble - 'surrey' ARUGULA, dressed with kumquat a la Greque
Ubuntu's menu gives diners the option to add an egg to almost any course. Though I was tempted to add an egg to every possible course, the presence of a dedicated poached egg dish on the menu was enough to sate my egg lust. Sadly the egg came out a touch overdone, the yolk didn't run so much as dribble when cut. Still, the accompaniments made this one of the stronger courses of the night To one side is a bed of lively nutty arugula and to the other, a bed of earthy mushrooms with a citrusy twist from the kumquat.

rustic rancho gordo 'yellow eye' bean stew (v) - ROSEMARY, CHILI and slow cooked 'black' KALE
Maybe it was the change of pace after so many leafy courses but I really liked this dish. I'm not typically a fan of bean stew even in a cassoulet paired with ingredients as rich as pork belly and duck confit so this was a pleasant change from the norm. The bean stew had a nice meatiness despite being a completely vegan dish, the bold flavor of the chili and heartiness of the beans gave the dish an endearing hominess.

a simple plate of horseradish gnocchi and assorted RADISHES - midnight moon, 'scarlet' TURNIP thinnings, smooth FAVA LEAF
The gnocchi grounded the vegetables with more of a neutral savory flavor than the sinus clearing heat of horseradish. More importantly the chewiness of the dumplings helped gave the dish some weight, but let the interplay between the cheese and greens come to the fore.

organic grits from arbuckle, goat's milk ricotta and it's whey - trumpet mushroom salsa negra, 'ruby streaks' mustard, SAUERKRAUT
The natural sweetness of the grits is complimented well by the gamy cheesiness of the ricotta. I would have expected a plate of grits to be somewhat monolithic but the vibrant flavor of the sauerkraut and depth of the mushroom come through spectacularly.

young potatoes baked in while FENNEL & CALCOT ash * - warm CALCOT-MUSTARD "mayo", vineyard LEAVES raw and smoked
The potatoes themselves were superb a study of the natural flavor of the humble potato coupled with a satisfying fried sapor. The vegetables were a bit one-dimensional though, with the smoked leaves smothering the palate

meyer LEMON sorbet float, orange cream soda (v) - BEET tapioca, citrus CHAMOMILE granita
I'm always a sucker for fruit granita and this was no exception. The orange cream soda starts things off with a flavor reminiscent of an orange creamsicle which contrasts well with the sharper sweet citrus of the granita. The beet tapioca finishes the dessert off with a round sweetness and a lovely textural contrast to the numbing granita.

'mutsu' apple pain perdue, macadamia "custard" - english THYME ice cream, greenhouse CELERY
Not really sure I got much apple initially, rather more of a spiced cake flavor from the pain perdue. Masterful use of celery and thyme ice cream to add a vegetal note and draw out the crisp tartness of the fresh apple

ubuntu's cheesecake in a jar - sour cherry with satsuma, teeccino-nut crumble
I can easily see why this is Ubuntu's signature dessert. On its own the tangy "cheesecake" cream is nothing to write home about. It's the layer in between that makes this. Sandwiched between the cheesecake is a spread of absolutely delicious tart cherry and citrus as well as a "crust" of buttery rich nut crumble.

soft TCHO chocolate, garden SAVORY ice cream - freeze dried MARIONBERRY, shattered shortbread
TCHO chocolate is a relatively new player in the world of gourmet chocolate. Located in San Francisco the company was founded by a "Space Shuttle technologist" and combines technology and chocolate to manufacture extremely high quality dark chocolate. The chocolate certainly lives up to its lofty origins, offering a rich complex chocolate so flavorful that it completely overshadowed the delicate savory ice cream. Absolutely superb on its own, the chocolate just doesn't play well with others

shot of hot chocolate, ritual sweet tooth espresso - chicory sugared doughnuts, vanilla whip
The doughnuts reminded me of a churro, lightly crunchy on the outside but spongy soft inside and covered with sugar and spice. For me the thick soothing shot of hot chocolate with its lingering sweetness stole the show on this course.

I came to Ubuntu based on the reputation the restaurant garnered under the Foxes; however, prior to my visit they left the restaurant abruptly. I was a bit skeptical whether the restaurant could continue to perform at a high level without their leadership, but aside from the decision to call the courses "small" plates there is very little to question about the food at Ubuntu. Despite some serious palate fatigue by the end, the courses were masterfully executed, showing the flexibility of vegetables and proving once and for all that meat is not necessary for flavorful or satisfying dishes. The restaurant is an ABSOLUTE must for any fine dining vegetarian and a great choice for just about everybody else.


sygyzy said...

Great review. It's really a shame you got there after Fox left though.

Epicuryan said...

Yeah it was sad to see he left and so abruptly. I never got a chance to see what Ubuntu was like under his charge but I was impressed with what I had.

Jai Kohli said...

I'm so disappointed too -- I'm so friggin infactuated with Chef Fox's cooking. Luckily enough he'll be doing a 5 night stint at Animal sometime in May... I have to get reservations for each night I think :)

Epicuryan said...

The menu looked similar to what it was under Fox. Maybe it will change over time.

Kevin and I were talking about going to the thing at Animal. It'll be interesting to see him go from vegetarian to super rich meat dishes.

Anonymous said...

Hi, It's great to see you still reviewing. I had been following your blog for a while in 08 and left it till now.. Keep it up!
Chef from Melbourne Australia
I'll certainly be following it more regularly.

Hungry Passport said...

Wow! I think I just swooned a little bit when I read "lavender almonds." Please share if you figure out how to make those. I think I'll take a crack at them, too. I have fresh lavender blossoms in the garden, awaiting experimentation.

Thanks! Carol