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Mar 10, 2008 11:52 AM

Ubuntu Napa--Mixed Feelings

Being vegetarian, I couldn't wait to go to Ubuntu and three of us (me, Mr. Cat and a friend) made it to Ubuntu on Saturday night. We had a 9 p.m. reservation.

We got there early (around 7 p.m.) and checked with them to see if they had anything available earlier. They didn't and offered us seats at the community table so we preferred to wait. At 8 p.m. we decided to get some drinks at the bar and wait for our table.

I got a glass of the made to order fresh lemonade. Mr. cat and the friend got a glass of wine each, which they said was excellent. The lemonade was a huge disappointment. It was sour as hell and tasted like drinking raw lemon juice. After a few sips I couldn't handle the tartness and added some sugar to it but it didn't get any better. I gave up about a fourth into it.

At 9.05 p.m. we were seated. We got some bread and butter, which was nice. When I asked if Ubuntu makes its own butter, our waitress said no. She said it came out of a package though she couldn't remember where from.

Here's what we ordered

---Fried sunchokes with romenesco sauce. It was fabulous. I have never had sunchokes before and it was wonderful bite sized pieces, perfectly fried.

--Chickpeas with Manchego and pepper quenelles. This was a disappointment. I wasn't expecting the chickpeas to be cold. And there was very little machego--three small shavings. The mint-olive oil vinaigrette didn't really enhance the flavors though the red pepper quenelles were good.

--Cauliflower in cast iron pot: Excellent. It lives up to its billing.

--Carta da Musica with truffled pecorino. This was great. Fresh greens, soft wonderful pecorino on a really crisp base.

--Wild Nettle pizza: This is was just average. A little on the salty side.

And finally the bergamot and white chocolate parfait with seasonal citrus for desert. This was fabulous. One of the best deserts I have had. Great tarragon flavor in it and wonderfully constructed.

Overall, it was a good meal. But I left with mixed feelings, because of the bad lemonade, chickpeas dish and the pizza. The service was good, but nothing to write home about.

Ubuntu was a very interesting meal but I am not sure about being one of the top ten restaurants in the country. For me, it was disappointing because I had expected a lot more. Maybe it was an off night, maybe they were swamped... maybe I had too high expectations.

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  1. That was the top ten NEW restaurants in the country. But I agree, with that kind of reputation, expectations would be very high.

    Since you were sitting at the bar, did you tell the bartender you were unhappy with your lemonade? I find tastes in lemonade to vary quite widely, and they may have been able to salvage it for you (or replace it with something more to your taste) if you'd complained.

    9 Replies
    1. re: Ruth Lafler

      Technically, it was the top ten new restaurants in the country that aren't in either New York, LA, or Portland.

      Sounds to me like a case of too-high expectations. Normally, when someone calls dishes "excellent" " great" and "fabulous" it indicates a positive review. That said, I went into Ubuntu with high expectations and was still wowed, despite the dreadful desserts.

      1. re: Morton the Mousse

        I was going to head to Ubuntu simply because of what I've heard about the desserts. .. can you elaborate on what was dreadful about them?


        1. re: pastryqueen

          Caveat: every other Hound and critic who has tried Ubuntu has adored the desserts.

          From my post:

          Sadly, after such an outstanding dinner, dessert was an enormous let down. I am not a conventional "hot fudge sundae" dessert eater. I like my desserts to have interesting flavors, to straddle the line between savory, salty, and sweet. Perhaps the pastry chef was having an off night, but these were among the worst desserts I have ever had.

          The bowl of "frosted flakes" with banana and malted milk was a cute concept, and normally I love nostalgic dishes that are all grown up. But this was cloyingly sweet and difficult to finish. Just as the cauliflower exceeded my expectations, the famous cheesecake was, quite simply, awful. Once again, the flavors were way too sweet, and lacked the tartness I associate with good cheesecake. I can't remember the last time I left so much dessert on my plate, but this was just unpleasant to eat. I am genuinely confused as to what others have seen in this dessert.

          It was a really sad ending to an otherwise fantastic meal. The whole drive home, Mrs. Mousse and I were talking about stopping by a store to buy chips or nuts so we could cleanse our palates from those cloying flavors. Our suspicion is that the chef eschews refined sugar in favor of "alternative" sweeteners such as date sugar and brown rice syrup. These sweeteners give desserts an odd flavor that I wholeheartedly dislike. Also, chefs tend to use them in excess, resulting in desserts that are way too sweet. Look, I don't eat dessert to be healthy. Give me the real stuff or I'll pass.

          1. re: Morton the Mousse

            thanks so much for that perspective. . .I, too,am not a fan of alternative sweeteners and have the same idea as you do about how a dessert should cross taste barriers.

            Perhaps I will wait until I am in the area instead of making a specific trek just for that restaurant.

            1. re: pastryqueen

              Personally, I think the savory food alone is worth the trek. And like I said, every other person seems to love the dessert. I've read countless posts and reviews praising it, which is part of the reason why I was so disappointed.

            2. re: Morton the Mousse

              I didn’t like the desserts either. You can read my report:
              I really like Ubuntu. I’m not a vegetarian but I probably enjoy well prepared vegetables more than most meat dishes. I’ve been underwhelmed by most vegetarian restaurants but I think Ubuntu is right on target. I find their food very interesting and satisfying, although I would say that I found variability in terms of the consistency of some of the dishes on separate visits.

        2. re: Ruth Lafler

          I later realized I should have complained. I was just shocked that it was so sour and kept thinking probably I was over-reacting to the tart taste. I later had Mr. cat and the friend taste it and they felt the same. So I just left it and didn't bother letting them know.

          1. re: nuttie_cat

            At $5 for a glass of lemonade, I would have let them know.

            I had the lemonade and I loved it ... it was exactly right for my tastes ... not too sweet as often happens and not too tart.

            I am glad though you posted your review. I did a rave and was concerned about it ... a lot.

            I was wowed by the food though I went in with lowered expectations ... I mean my experiences at 'vegetarian' restaurants is more along the lines of being polite ... "Very good" I say with a strained smile. I keep forgetting that Ubuntu is vegetarian ... or rather doesn't serve meat or fish

            That being said, I know raving about a place raises unrealistic expectations and I was concerned about that. Even the best of restaurants have some dishes that are clunkers. French Laundry and Chez Panisse fail for some people just for that reason ... too high expectations. That being said, after a few more visits I might just confirm that Ubuntu exceeds what is produced by the kitchens at BOTH those restaurants.

            From what I've read, the pizza at Ubuntu is one of those dishes that could dissapoint. I had some links to blogs in my post that Chowhound for some unknown reason deleted. However, in those blog entries were very helpful hints on what to order and more importantly ... what to avoid.

            At Ubuntu, my advice is to eat with your eyes. I had that fabulous parfait too after seeing it at another table ... ditto on the beets I ordered.

            However, the pizza looked a bit anemic and I passed on that in favor of the beets. Sounds like I might have made the right choice.

            I don't know abut the chickpeas though. My experiences with garbanzos is that they are usually not served hot unless it is part of a soup.

          2. re: Ruth Lafler

            you should have had the carrot-orange juice with the glass rimmed with a spicy cumin-salt mix. completely delicious.

            overall, i put my lunch at ubuntu as one of the top 10 meals in my life. maybe top 5. everything (with the exception of the dessert: cheesecake in a jar) was pleasing to the eye and astonishing on the palate. i loved the chickpea dish. for me everything was in balance...just the right amount of cheese. my husband had the radish dish and the smoked grits. i have never seen or eaten anything so beautiful...deep complexity of flavors and textures.

            my only negative comment would be to train the waitstaff how to pronounce chevre. a small bone...