It’s a very good sign, when I’m handed a menu in a restaurant, and everything on it looks so good to me, I can’t decide what to order. Such was the case with the menu at ubuntu, one of the most highly-lauded restaurants in America, which wasn’t just famous for creating innovative food, but also because it’s entirely vegetarian.
Luckily there were six of us, so we tried almost everything on the menu, which included lots of oddities and items so unusual, we had to ask what they were.
Our server and the sommelier, who were both terrific, assuredly guided us through chef Jeremy Fox’s menu, although in the end, we decided to order two or three of just about everything that was share-able, and split it. That’s the way to go at ubuntu, since the food is all about intriguing tastes and flavors, which make for good mealtime discussion.
Some of the produce is from ubuntu’s biodynamic garden, including most of herbs and greens, which are used in abundance as both a seasoning and to pique one’s palate, as was the case with tangy leaves of sorrel and spongy buds of ficoide glaciale.
Our meal started with a few “bites”: olives marinated in mizuna pesto, Spanish marcona almonds toasted with sea salt and lavender, and my favorite, a neat (and copious) stack of chickpea fries with piquillo romesco, which reminded me of my beloved panisses.
The lunch menu is roster of small plates, which we chose to accompany with a wine flight. Perfect-sized 2 ounces pours were meant to compliment the dishes and the offbeat flavors, and wines like Gewürtztraminer, work perfectly with the highly-seasoned food. (Which teetered occasionally on the side of being a bit too-salty.)
Hitting the tail-end of tomato season, the meal began with a composed plate mixed with various basils and gooey burrata cheese, riddled with wild fennel crackers.
A stripe of fingerling potatoes with smoked sauce gribiche was terrific, and I wondered how they got that smoky flavor in there. (I’m going to try something like this at home with my smoked salt.) Those little dark dots are what was described on the menu as black garlic. I have no idea what “black” garlic is, but it was smooth and had a gentle, yet lingering aftertaste.
And the carrot salad, which wasn’t on the menu, was so beautiful I wanted to take it outside and photograph it for an hour. Carrots and greens were interwoven with nectarine foam and flowers, served on a slab of slate. I think this was my favorite course, although there was a long way to go before dessert, so let’s not get too hasty…
The signature dish, cauliflower in a cast iron pot, was highly-anticipated at our table, and I almost burned the crap out of my mouth, since I couldn’t wait to eat it and shoved a spoonful in my craw too-quickly. Once the casserole, and my larynx, cooled down, I could appreciate the flavor better.
The server told us about the lengthy process that goes into making it, and that it was seasoned with French vadouvan curry, which, living in France for six years, I’d never heard of…and had to come to Napa Valley to try.
Another cast iron dish came out with homemade fregola, small nuggets of pasta, with roast red zebra tomato and braised fava beans. Hot on its heels were small casseroles of macaroni & cheese, made with silver mountain white cheddar. (Like the provenance of the French curry, I have no idea where silver mountain is.) More liquid than crusty cheese, it tasted good, but I think macaroni & cheese is one dish that’s best baked one day, and re-heated an served as leftovers the next. So I hope the kitchen makes plenty extra for staff meals. And if so, I want an invite.
We ordered both pizzas on the menu, one with sauerkraut and black rice quenelles seasoned with caraway and garlic confit, as well as a nearly-classic pizza bianco topped with a domaine de la chance egg (and once again, I have no idea where ‘domaine de la chance’ is, but I’m sure if I asked they would’ve helped me out on that one, too) which I just managed to tuck in a slice-and-a-half of before I begged off any more.
Because I was waiting for my favorite course—dessert!
Pastry chef Deanie Fox, who served up her creative and playfully-unusual desserts (but never silly or contrived) at Manresa, started us off with a cleansing goblet of watermelon granita, figs, rose geranium sabayon, and a lively dab of berry coulis at the bottom. It was the absolute perfect segue before the rest of the desserts were brought to the table.
Strawberries and raspberries were presented in a controlled tumble, along with demi-scoops of ice cream, candied lemon, and dried berry powder. Crackly white shards of meringue were not just architecturally advantageous, but a nice balance with the gushingly-soft berries. But really, it was just so beautiful. I loved the presentation.
Served in a jar, the vanilla cheesecake was layered with huckleberries, verbena cream, and crunchy almond streusel. And a witty take on a bowl of flaky feuilletine with caramelized banana, and kaffir lime ice cream was served with a pitcher of warm coconut and rum milk, which brilliantly brought the whole thing together. It’s amazing how just a small, yet deftly-perfect touch, can change an entire dish. Isn’t it?
Even though I was still coasting on the fond memories of my Citizen Cake cupcake from a few days before, the mini carrot cupcakes, which were vegan (many of the dishes at ubuntu, the menu noted, can happily be made for vegans), not only as cute as a button, with tiny candied carrots gracing the top, but they were moist, not-too-sweet, and just the right bite to finish off a terrific lunch.
Afterward, I was too full to head upstairs to the yoga studio and do a few poses, and next time, I’ll get in a few moves beforehand to prepare for the lengthy meal to follow. I was so full I felt like walking the forty-miles back to San Francisco, and was thankful the waitress stopped us about 2/3rds of the way through the meal to put the brakes on us, who were careening out of control in terms of ordering.
Lunch is a pleasant time to dine at ubuntu, with the sun streaming in the windows and a not too-jammed dining room, which meant a very relaxed pace all around. I hear dinner requires reservations a few weeks in advance. Much of that is probably due to the publicity that chef Jeremy Fox has received, including being called one of the hottest chefs of the year by a food magazine, and after my meal here, it’s a well-deserved moniker. (Somehow, though, they always manage to skip over the most important person in the kitchen—the pastry chef!)
Heidi said she was interested in knowing what I thought of the meal, and I’d have to say I was impressed and always surprised. There were lots of lively flavors, namely from the garden herbs and leaves, and the presentations were simple enough to not distract attention from the ingredients, but not so simple that you felt gypped getting plate of vegetables.
I’ll often write about places, sometimes without giving a concrete opinion, if I find them unusual or interesting enough to bring to your attention. In some cases, the food takes second-place to either the ambiance or the locale. One doesn’t necessarily eat at a hot dog cart because it’s ‘gourmet’ or especially delicious, but because it’s, as the French would say, “Très correct”. In this case, ubuntu hits all the right notes, but the fresh, immaculately-prepared food is definitely the star, which in this case, makes it “très, très correct.”
1140 Main Street
Update: As of February, 2010, Jeremy Fox and his wife, Deanie Fox have left ubuntu as chef and pastry chef, respectively. No word on their replacement or what the status of the restaurant will be.