ubuntu

carrot salad

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.

ubuntu

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.

sugared almonds

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.

chickpea fries

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.)

tomato salad

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.

potatoes

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.

carrot salad

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…

cauliflower thing

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.

casserole

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.

pizza

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!

meringue

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.

berry dessert ubuntu

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.

cheese cake jar

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?

mini-cupcakes

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.

cupcake mini

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.

ubuntu greens

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.”

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

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.

45 comments

  • That all looks so delicious. I was reading an article in San Francisco magazine just this morning which featured Jeremy Fox and the pastry chef. I’m also proud that Jeremy is from my hometown of CLEVELAND, OH! :)

  • such miniscule carrots! the tops weren’t edible, were they? but really, that is the most divinely beautiful salad i’ve ever laid eyes on. i’d like a dress made out of it.

  • Even though I’ve been reading your blog for months and know that it’s about food and France, the moment I saw “ubuntu,” I promptly thought, “ZOMG David’s writing about Linux!”

    Whoops ^_^;

    Anyway, those dishes look fantastic. Especially the mini carrot cupcakes. Now I really want some good carrot cake.

  • Ubuntu is fantastic – I went there in August, and enjoyed both my yoga class and my lunch. The chickpea fries were completely out of this world, but I agree that the food was a bit on the salty side overall (the cauliflower could have used a bit more curry and little less salt, in my opinion. It is such a fun and lovely place to eat though….

  • THAT’S what the french call “an american pizza”!!!! the one with an egg smack dab in the middle. of course in france, the egg is undeliciously runny…

  • That carrot salad looks fabulous, it’s a work of art!

  • OMG.

  • The salad reminds me of Mirazur… and Manresa ! The dishes look beautiful.And those cupcakes…. and mac n cheese (but I totally feel you on the leftover part).

    I’m planning on eating there on my next trip back to CA which won’t be until February at least… =(

  • I met the owner of this restaurant last spring and have been wanting to make a trip out west to try it ever since. She was very interesting to talk to and I see from these pics that her descriptions of what Ubuntu is all about weren’t exaggerated one bit. Thanks for posting so many great pictures!

  • YUM! I wish Napa was closer.

  • I’m glad I am not the only nerd to think this was going to be about Linux. Beautiful photographs.

  • Beautitul pictures and an outstanding critique that I’m sure they appreciate it coming from you. You piqued my interest with the sauerkraut and caraway pizza, I love the combination (and like to include caramelized onions). That whole lunch sounds so good..and healthy! Yoga after lunch? I’d only be able to sit in lotus and moan rather than chant…

  • Hi David,

    Your photos are amazing! Thanks for sharing.

    As to black garlic, there was a small piece on it in Food Stuff in The New York Times this past week. It is supposed to have good antioxidants and is sweet with licorice overtones. Apparently you can buy it in New York and California; although, I suspect some of your readers have their own sources.

    Enjoy the rest of your trip.

    Andrea

  • I love the photos.

    Another destination I must hit!

  • The waiter referred to the carrot salad as an “Expression of Carrots”, which is still haunting me as a beautiful name for the artistically arranged slate of roots, greens, and flowers. Wouldn’t “Expression of…” make a nice cookbook title?

  • David,
    we’ll definitely put this in our must visit list in Napa.

  • I’m pleased to report that our few leftovers, which I fear we embarrassed you in taking home, were quite yummy the next day.

    Long live the doggie bag!

  • HI David: So nice to meet you and share a fantastic lunch at ubuntu. We all are in agreement about the over salting — especially the cauliflower. Still a great lunch.

    Next time you’re in California Carolyn and I hope to take you to our favorite mexican — Andale. Until then, happy eating.

    Patt

  • How beautiful!

  • Ok,
    Could you please tell me how they candied the carrots. And yes I was surprised this was only lunch. I hope dinner was light. What beautiful presentation!
    Thank you for sharing.

  • How did I miss this when I was in Napa? I was too ensconced in The French Laundry, I suppose. My next trip out there will be next March. Ubuntu will be mine! :)

  • Everything looks amazing! I’m embarrassed to say I’m local and have never been there. We’ll definitely have to make our way there for lunch one of these days, the desserts are calling to me!

  • Sweet baby Jesus. As a vegetarian, and a fan of the occasional fancy-pants restaurant, I’ve made it a goal in the next 12 months to take part in the veg tasting menu at the French Laundry. I’ve heard so much about Ubuntu, and obviously, this needs to go on the Napa list as well!

  • Your photographs are truly magnificent!!!

    The details in your writing really capture the true “ESSENCE” of Ubuntu…WOW!!!

    It was a thrill meeting you and sharing this wonderfully prepared meal with everyone at our table. Let’s celebrate the pleasures of enjoying exciting and creative food at Ubuntu.

  • I am so glad you had a chance to eat here David. This is my new favorite restaurant and in the 4 times and 4 seasons we have eaten there, I am consistently blown away by the creativity and quality of the food coming out of the kitchen. It just soars. I don’t even like to call it a vegetarian restaurant (though I am a vegetarian). I think of it as a vegetable and egg restaurant. But whatever you call it, the world is a tastier place with Ubuntu in it.

  • Inspiring! Now I am starving, too. Thanks for the visit.

  • Now I’m even more upset that I did not make it to Ubuntu when I was in Napa this August! The food looks and sounds amazing. Do you think Jeremy Fox might be coaxed into sharing that cauliflower recipe????

  • David, you hit the nail on the head. I drove to Ubuntu from San Jose (close to 2 hours) twice in two weeks last spring because I couldn’t get the damn castelvetrano olives or that cheesecake out of my head. Now, with your captivating photos and prose, you’ve got me obsessed again.

  • That carrot salad is outstanding! It’s so beautiful with all the different components.

  • Why oh why can we not have a vegetarian restaurant this inspiring in New York? Although many of the better known posh restaurants (like Aquavit) have vegetarian tasting menus now, I want to choose my own food – not be limited to one short list of predetermined items.

  • Whaou David that looks like it was a great meal. Your photos are looking really amazing.

  • What beautiful food, what beautiful photographs. I have not tried this restaurant yet, but now I will – soon!

  • What a great restaurant and scrumptious meal! The desserts are spectacular and reminded I needed to use my raspberry powder!! Black garlic is fermented garlic. I was given 2 packets of black garlic juice and I still have one that I’d be happy to send your way!

  • Dear David,

    It’s always a treat to read your blog. Thank you!

    The silver mountain cheddar you mentioned comes from Bravo Farms in Visalia, California. It’s a truly fine raw milk domestic cheddar that my Englisman will happily eat when I can’t find anything from Neal’s Yard like Keens or Montgomery Cheddar. http://bravofarms.com/shop/silver-mountain-clothbound-cheddar.html
    http://cowgirlcreamery.com/prodinfo.asp?number=SILVERMT

  • W.O.W !

    (ok, not the most clever comment ever :D, but, I mean it, WOW !)

  • Hi David,
    I loved this. The photos are so beautiful. But…”gypped” is a racist slur against Gypsies or, as they call themselves, Roma. It’s so common, and Roma are so invisible in America, that most people don’t know this, but it is the equivalent of saying someone “Jewed down” a price. “Cheated” is a perfectly good word which could be used instead.
    Thanks, as always, for the wonderful blog.

  • Hi David,
    Which camera do you have. The photos are so delicious. I just love all your posts.

  • Swati: Check out my post: My Food Photography Gear, for details about my photo tips and the equipment that I use.

  • I was recommended to your site and was beyond impressed from your photos… they are great….thanks

  • That carrot salad is STUNNING. I haven’t seen a dish that pretty in a L-O-N-G time.

  • Hi David,

    This is my first post on your blog, so I will start by saying that you are my inspiration, and I absolutely adore you (and have silently done so for a ridiculously long time, because, well, I’m shy with first introductions, okay… especially if the person I am introducing myself to is some kind of hero of mine).

    Based on all of your posts, I am positive we have identical-twin palates with only one noted exception: you don’t appreciate Laduree’s lily of the valley macarons, and I adore them (a relatively minor detail among palate twins, really, and I won’t hold it against you, since I am a floral junkie).

    What a stunning post, as always. But, you knew that, didn’t you?

    It looks like you had a lovely time in the states. I noticed you didn’t stock up on tart cherries, though. I’m surprised!

    Regarding Black Garlic, I found this link and I thought you would appreciate it:
    http://www.ideasinfood.com/ideas_in_food/2008/04/black-garlic.html

    According to the author, it is apparently quite hip to dip black garlic in chocolate!!!

    Hmmm…. I predict a post on Black Garlic – Dark Chocolate Tarts in the future. Sounds sexy, doesn’t it?

    Cheers my dear,

    ~ Paula

  • Paula: Thanks for the link. Now I know! : )

  • Just tried a black garlic clove this past weekend. They sell it at the check-out at The Berkeley Bowl – a little plastic container of about a dozen cloves. Interesting, different – I’d agree with the comment on licorice-related flavors. Some tang and, an indescribable flavor as well. Interesting and odd.

  • I’m glad so many people beat me to the black garlic thing! It’s supposed to be even better for us than regular garlic because oxidizing/fermenting it lets the allicin develop, I think? Whereas the way we often prepare garlic doesn’t allow that (like chopping it and throwing it immediately on the heat – gotta let it sit for 10-15 minutes first).

    Wouldn’t “domain de la chance” mean something like “random domain” – like, they can’t tell you where the eggs will come from for sure any given week, and they say that in French to make it sound really great? :)

  • I don’t normally like “vegeterrorist food” but I have to say, these photos look so incredibly delicieux!!! When I return to California late fall, guess where I’m going… Thanks for the info…