Sonoma Trip Report (La Salette, Ubuntu, Ravenous)
I’m so behind by now with San Francisco reports, and find the thought of trying to catch up so daunting, that I thought I’d ease myself in by starting elsewhere. We took a trip to the Sonoma-area wine country over Presidents Day weekend, and had an absolutely beautiful time. Food-wise, this meant dinner at La Salette (Sonoma), lunch at Ubuntu, (Napa), and dinner at Ravenous (Healdsburg), bookended by Brenda’s and Antica here in SF. I’ll save the SF spots for another time. Suffice it to say that Brenda could serve cardboard along with those biscuits (she doesn’t—the eggs are cooked to specification and the grits are great) and I would still keep coming back for more. Also, I think Antica is under-discussed on these boards. I’ve had two very fine meals there thus far, and this last one was actually significantly more satisfying than a recent trip to Incanto (more on this some other time.)
We started out in Sonoma, where we took the bus up highway 12 to Kenwood and walked from place to place, picnicking along the way at Chateau St. Jean on food we’d brought with us. (I’ve never understood how that whole wine-tasting and driving thing is actually supposed to work. But maybe I’m just a total lightweight.) Dinner was at La Salette. We sat at the bar, which was great—I love bar seats in general, and these were particularly entertaining since so much of the cooking/plating goes on in front of the wood burning oven. Still pretty full from our late picnic, we shared the kale, potato and linguica soup, the salt cod fritters, and the pork and clam stew. The soup was calm, earthy, mercifully unsalty and genuinely green tasting, both from the kale and from the green olive oil splashed on top. A very good version. The cod fritters were fine. Like fishsticks (or at least, like my taste memory of fishsticks, which is 25 years old and thus maybe not particularly accurate), only spherical and served on lettuce leaves. I liked them, but then I like all things that are crunchy on the outside and pillowy within. The pork and clam stew was delicious. The pork pieces were just the slightest bit chewy, but the flavor combination of pig and brine was unexpectedly wonderful (though I’ve been to Portugal, I’d never had this dish before; I regret now that I didn’t seek it out), and the resulting tomato-ey juices were complex and eminently bread worthy. (And while I’m on the subject of bread: the rolls they bring prior to the meal are both good and surprising, managing to be somehow both dense and fluffy at the same time.) One note on presentation: everything we ordered looked fine on the plate, but pretty much everything else we saw go out looked laughably terrible. I’m sure it all tasted fine, but three lumps of grey meat sided by two token pieces of steamed carrot and broccoli do not an aesthetic arrangement make. We finished up with espressos in lieu of desserts—some of which did look good, but we were full—and headed back to the hotel.
The next morning we drove to Napa, pretty much for the sole purpose of eating lunch at Ubuntu. Napa itself we found bizarrely center-less; as others have noted, however, the restaurant space is ambitious. It was all a bit “yoga” for us, especially the large, inspirational-motto-bearing canvases covering the largest wall, but we didn’t much mind, because it feels great. Light, airy, and cheerful, anchored in lots of wood. (Also: exceptionally cool faucets in the restrooms.) We had the fried sunchokes with romesco sauce to start, which were very tasty and reminded me of the fried artichokes I liked so much in Rome’s Jewish quarter. Then came the yellow bean soup, which may well have been the most refined bean soup either of us had ever eaten, though I personally could have done without the hit of lavender. (I prefer my beans to taste a little less, um, clean. Am I the only person to whom lavender always tastes of soap?) Anyway, it was great. Perfect texture—some whole beans, most broken, some pureed into a thick broth—and very distinct vegetable tastes. I had the famous cauliflower dish as a main and loved it, though not so much that I’d order it again if I went back. The different textures were exciting, especially the cauliflower “couscous,” and little hits of citrus amidst the silky custard stuff were welcome bright notes. My boyfriend had the Robuchon style potatoes with caramelized onions, leeks in vinegar, and a slow egg. He loved it. So did I, but I didn’t get much, especially since I had nothing to bargain with. (He hates cauliflower with an undying passion.) Again, the vinegar-y tang from the leeks cut through the creamy potato-egg yolk-sweet onion mush-combo to make the whole thing memorable rather than just pleasant. The boy pronounced it the second-best plate of mashed potatoes he’s ever eaten. We finished with the grapefruit sorbet in kiwi-lemongrass soda. Wow. What a way to end. I would happily consume this once a week in the winter. An absolute symphony of bright, wintry flavors and interesting textural contrasts. (Fizz from the soda, resistant chew from what I took to be cubes of cranberry jelly but which might have been something else, smooth iciness from the sorbet, juicy plumpness from the fruit chunks, and at bottom some kind of creamy custard whose egginess was—for me—the one slightly false note in the whole marvelous concoction.) It was like eating that glittering, crystalline kind of sunshine you only get in winter, in places where it snows. Need I add that it was also beautiful?
After driving up Napa Valley through Calistoga to Healdsburg (that last bit is a truly wonderful drive—would have been worth the detour over to Napa even without Ubuntu) we did some tasting in and around the Plaza followed by burgers at Ravenous. We are burger people, and these were the best burgers we have had so far in and around the Bay Area. Not as good as our New Jersey favorites, but very, very respectable, with great beefy flavor and all kinds of drippy beef juice. I found the carmelized onion a bit too firm (it was hard to bite off bits of it with individual bites of burger; all four rings of it seemed to want to be eaten at one go), and the thick-cut fries were only so-so (not crispy enough outside, too mealy and kind of tired inside), but those are minor details so long as the beef is right, which it most definitely was. We drank beer, and had absolutely no room for dessert, which was probably a relief to the multitudes of people waiting in line for tables.
That’s it for the food part of the trip. (The next day was a picnic on the coast near Bodega Bay, with the last of the cheese etc. we’d brought with us from SF, and dinner at Antica.) Thanks to everyone who’s contributed tips for this area in the past. We came home fat and happy!
Ubuntu Restaurant & Yoga Studio
1140 Main Street, Napa, CA 94558
2400 Polk St, San Francisco, CA 94109
Brenda's French Soul Food
652 Polk St, San Francisco, CA 94102
452 First Street East, Suite H, Sonoma, CA 95476
420 Center St, Healdsburg, CA 95448
Thanks for your detailed report! I've been to Ravenous, but La Salette and Ubuntu have definitely been on my to-try list for next time I'm in wine country. I love the Portuguese dish of pork and clams. Too bad about the poor marks for presentation. Your dessert at Ubuntu sounds wonderful and imaginative. And I must try the burger next time at Ravenous!