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Mar 31, 2008 12:36 AM

03/08 Ubuntu: From The Same Folks That Sold You Bottled Water

Spoiler Warning: If you are an Ubuntu fan, read no further. I am well aware that any credibility I ever had in the CH community- will be lost forever with this post.Sorry, but I can only write the truth of my own experience. As many different people as there are in the world, there are as many different opinions.....

Thank heavens for Petit Secs from yesterday's Ferry Bldg. excursion to The Fatted Calf; they're taking the edge off my gnawing hunger while I enter this post.

There were four of us tonight at Ubuntu.From the beginning, all boded well. CH reviews by admired posters- had been largely positive. We walked in the door at 7PM and were completely surprised to be greeted by the handsome and talented GM who is an old acquaintance from Boston. We were seated at a handsome table with very comfortable chairs in a very handsome high ceilinged space, graced by some unusually good serious sculpture. There was a friendly comfortable inviting vibe about the place.

By the end of our evening, 9:30, we had shared 12 different items, some 'bites', some 'small plates', some ' large plates',and two desserts.Our friends were pleasantly satiated ; my love and I were ready to go out for dinner.

Revelations? Not a one. Appealing flavors?- many.Ridiculously skimpy portions?- the norm. Return? Never. N..E..V..E..R

Marcona Almonds w/ Lavender, sugar, salt. (and I detest lavender)
Fried sunchokes w/ romesco sauce
Red pepper and bread quenelles w/ marinated chick peas and whiff of manchego cheese
Yellow eye bean soup

table bread and butter
beet,mache,avocado salad
radish salad
carta da musica w/ pea shoots
robuchon potatoes w/ egg and red wine
anson grits w/ fava leaves and parm and carrot puree
chocolate souffle
vanilla cheesecake in a jar

I will go into disgruntled detail on only one plate as an example:

The white anson grits, maybe 1/2 cup, 8 tablespoons, were spread out on a large white plate in kind of a free form long puddle,topped with 3 fava leaves, 2 asparagus spears and 2 broccolini? sprigs, and accompanied by 1-2 tablespoons of mounded tangelo carrot puree. The grits tasted like they had been cooked in water. and unsalted water at that. No lovely rich multidimensional vegetable stock here. They were grossly undersalted and underparmesaned. As a matter of record, I would testify that there was no parmesan present. I added liberal salt and a requested side of parm. And did I mention the cost of this 'Large Plate' of 1/2 cup of grits? $21.00.

Service was o.k. Throughout the evening, the waitress consistently did not notice things that needed replenishing. One item we ordered never appeared. Her recs were crummy- the potatoes reblochon that she said we 'couldn't not get' were completely undistinguished, forgettable, and an insult to Chef Robuchon. She pushed the pizzas, but other CH posts saved me from following her lead.

BTW, The chef was present and on the line this evening. I'm sure he is very pleased with all the press and positive feedback he's been receiving.
And the owners? Well, they're certainly not the first , nor will they be the last, to build
an empire on air........ or bottled water. But it will not be me helping them purchase that island in the Seychelles........

My advice for those of you who want to be wowed by some great vegetarian food?- find a talented chef and eat her/his vegetarian offerings. (Just in the past week, both Cortez in SF and Redd in Yountville- have had many exquisite vegetarian offerings on their menus- with which one could easily put together a super many-dish dinner.)

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  1. >potatoes reblochon ... Chef Reblochon
    er, it is potatos with Reblochon or pommes Robuchon, or am i missing something?
    it's a fine line between cheese and chef.

    i do hate it when places charge high prices and skimp on quantities
    on stuff where the ingredient cost is low and the marginal labor is also low.

    ok tnx.

    8 Replies
    1. re: psb

      can you tell i'm tired? haha- thank you. i fixed it.!

      1. re: psb

        I have to disagree about the labor costs. Vegetarian food is generally a lot more labor intensive than meat-centered food. There's a lot more prep work in putting together a good vegetable dish than slapping a piece of meat on the grill. Even with more complicated meat dishes, most of the labor goes into the non-meat ingredients and sauces with it (which are essentially the same in vegetarian cooking), not the meat itself.

        1. re: Ruth Lafler

          If all meats were just "slapped on to a grill" I think I would become a vegetarian myself. But I don't think it's quite that simple.

          1. re: Ruth Lafler

            You're right, which I think is why psb wrote "marginal labor." It isn't that much harder to cook and serve a cup of grits instead of half a cup... even when you scale that to the number of plates Ubuntu serves in one night.

            1. re: kds

              Well grits, yeah (and the same could be said of a piece of meat). But in general vegetables need a lot of prep, and the more veggies on the plate, the more prep.

              1. re: Ruth Lafler

                re: meat ... obviously i'm not talking about high end meat and seafood
                where even a 5% increase in "food volume" might be a +$1 in ingredient

                the disgruntlement is more along the lines of when you go to a
                decent [say +$40pax] and get a steak and they short change you
                on the mashed potatos. I suppose it would have been a reasonable
                norm to prevent wastage that you're welcome to ask for more of
                this kind of thing, but i think in many cases that would look odd.
                again, i mean not being greedy here and trying to get a free side
                dish ... i guess you're just going to have to trust me that my reaction
                was to an unresonably stingy portion [i dont remember a particular

                1. re: psb

                  I was just arguing the comment about labor costs. The price of the ingredient is not necessarily correlated to the cost of the labor to prepare it. In fact, generally speaking, the more expensive the ingredient, the less has to be done to it. A $9 chef salad has a lot more labor in it than a $40 steak.

                  1. re: Ruth Lafler

                    yes, except there was no comment about "labor costs" only a
                    comment about marginal labor costs, which is totally different.

                    there never was a implication there was a "correlation" between
                    any of these: ingredient cost, labor cost, marginal labor cost.

                    the point was mashed potatos are different from individually
                    crafted mini-desserts, or complicated sushi items etc. or say an
                    extra scoop of rice vs. an extra <insert individually cooked indian
                    bread type>.

        2. "I am well aware that any credibility I ever had in the CH community- will be lost forever with this post."

          Naaah. I haven't been to Ubuntu yet, but I have many friends and acquaintances who felt the same way you did.

          3 Replies
          1. re: Atomica

            Also not sure that you lose any credibility - everybody gets a voice here!

            I really liked our meal and appreciated the variety in vegetarian food that you don't tend to get elsewhere. For instance, a quick glance at the REdd menu only has one veggie salad (but it was a quick glance). OFten there is only a risotto or a pasta dish that is veggie. I am not vegetarian, but love to see creative things done and enjoyed having the meal.

            That being said - I was disappointed in the grits, because I felt the fava greens and asparagus couldn't stand up, but I did like the plain grits after a few bites. I love corn though. Our Ad Hoc meal was better - perhaps it was just a "on" day for Ad Hoc, but it was better. That doesn't diminish the charm for Ubuntu for me, although now I want to go back to try Cindy's backstreat Kitchen. We love Latin inspired food.

            1. re: jsaimd

              re your glance at redd's menu (i will be doing a long post about our fabulous lunch there yesterday), i really think that vegetarian foodies are likely to look at menus and ask for a dinner made up of particularly appealing vegetarian components from all the different dishes on the menu..... And chefs love it when clients appreciate their sides and sauces...

            2. Nah ... don't worry about creds ... just not your style.

              When I read this thread of yours where Paul H mentioned your not liking Manressa or Michael Minna and you said

              "( I cancelled our Coi reservation because preemie portions are even less appealing to me than child's portions. My Motto? : "Just Say No To Entree Quarks And Microscopic Drizzles! ")"

              Well, I thought uh, oh in terms of Ubuntu (Sorry, didn't read it till last night)

              Lots of people don't like MIchael Minna but since the Ubuntu chef is from Manressa it wasn't any surprise you wouldn't like the probably the same chef that was there on your visit and is doing a veggie version of some of what he did there.

              I always like the opposing posts like this and another recent 'meh' post. It gives readers a balanced view to decide if this is the thing for them or not.

              There is no restaurant on this board universally beloved (and btw, don't ever throw your money at French Laundry given your preferences ... at that price point mayhem might break out in the restaurant ... I didn't like FL much)

              There are people I wouldn't take to Ubuntu. My Chinese buffet loving SO's relatives who wanted to know where the real Chinese food was at Yank Sing ... would not like Ubuntu.

              There is a poster on the board that dislikes the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market with a passion. I would not suggest he go to Ubuntu. I actually admire his restraint for not chiming in on the Ubuntu threads.

              Actually the 'meh' report from daveena surprised me since her tastes often match mine ... but it might be a case of too many positive reports that resulted in an expectation bar that couldn't possibly be reached.

              The mixed opinions are great and give people a balanced view. I'm always sorry when people drop comments that they didn't like so and so place and with all the positive comments they didn't post. .

              The thing with Ubuntu is that despite glowing reviews here and in the press, it is still going to to have a rough go because it doesn't serve meat and has that yoga thing vibe. To me it wasn't precious for what it is ... like some other restaurants in that same category. It felt comfortable. So I hope people who would like joints like Manressa don't cross this off their list.

              Glad to hear you like that yellow bean soup though. I had that targeted for lunch on Friday but didn't make it to Napa in time. Looked like a big bowl of it too :-)

              6 Replies
              1. re: rworange

                Hi there, rw! I haven't seen you at the Ferry Building the last few Saturdays, are you OK?

                I don't think opinionatedchef's review is the shot heard round the boards your review of TFL was, because the target wasn't so big. But I give both of you an "Emperor's Clothes" award.

                You obviously couldn't have been referring to me, of course, but I personally haven't commented on Ubunto because I think it's just some kind of elaborate parody and I'm not one of your Gilpins that's going to be snookered by it. Besides, what happens in Napa stays in Napa (or should).

                1. re: Xiao Yang

                  Of course I wasn't referencing you, XY. Oxbow Market is filling my needs much better than Ferry Plaza ... so I'm more likely to be there these days.

                  That is the thing about Ubuntu though ... it sounds like a parody with that Yoga studio thingy ... and was one of the reasons I didn't have it on top of my list despite months of positive reports on Chowhound and elsewhere. I actually do have a low tolerance of what sound like gimmick restaurants going back to the days when the only gimmick was dinner theatre.

                  I was so taken aback that Ubuntu wasn't what I expected. Looking forward to my visit this week with a Chowhound friend. I won't have the element of pleasant surprise and I'm curious to see what he thinks.

                  Yes, Ubuntu is small potatoes.Only one restaurant that is hardly likely to spawn a chain. It is not the 170 restaurant mega empire that spawned the new Waterbar and Roasthouse. The only thing Ubuntu is growing is its own veggies and supports local earth-friendly suppliers for other items.

                2. re: rworange

                  yes, the ubuntu chef was the chef de cuisine at manresa- this pre-known fact was with me when i made the ub. reservation and helped keep me from sky high expectations.

                  and no, i would never consider going to FrL after my many discussions with people about it.ooh that's a bad sentence but i am tired.sorry.

                  1. re: opinionatedchef

                    I'm having a bit of difficulty calibrating op-chef's tasteometer. I get not liking Manresa, Michael Mina, and Ubuntu, and not even wanting to try Coi or TFL, but what am I supposed to make of the apparently positive feelings about minibar?

                    1. re: Paul H

                      paul, i guess it might sound confusing unless you had had the minibar experience. if you haven't, i hope you will. then maybe you will understand. i know you will have a great time.

                  2. re: rworange

                    My reaction was somewhat more positive than "meh" - I liked it, and will go back, but I wasn't blown away. I was definitely hoping for more innovative flavor combinations, but I thought everything was tasty and well cooked. And I definitely think my expectations were too high - it is a little unfair to go into a meal, hoping that it'll change the way you look at food (esp when in my case, I've been veg-centric for a long time).

                  3. I was surprised by your comments on value - I was impressed by the price:portion ratio at Ubuntu. Then I noticed the mention of a $21 entree, which seemed strange because I remember the prices topping out at $16. So I pulled up the current menu. Sure enough, prices have gone up substantially over the last few months, as much as 40% in some cases. Can't really blame them for charging more when they're so popular. I may have been less enthusiastic in my review had my bill been 25% higher.

                    3 Replies
                    1. re: Morton the Mousse

                      I don't know - we fed 2 adults very well - we were stuffed and 2 kids, for $75. For a good quality meal with as much variety we had - that is a steal. This is lunch though and picking the small portions for many dishes.

                      1. re: Morton the Mousse

                        Damn ... all this chat and no one put in the link.

                        1. re: Morton the Mousse

                          ok, let me try that link one more time.

                          I agree with you about the prices, Morton. Given the attention it was getting, it was part of the reason I rushed up there. Peeking at the rest of the menu most of the prices seem to have held their own. Now let's hope they don't raise the price of the tasting menu before I get there.

                          Ubuntu Restaurant & Yoga Studio
                          1140 Main Street, Napa, CA 94558

                        2. OMG!!! thank you for your post ... i thought i was the ONLY sole person who did not like ubuntu. actually, my husband and i liked the sunchokes, but that was it!

                          i ordered ALL the dishes that CHers recommended - the signature cauliflower dish, the potatoes robuchon, and anson grits - we couldn't finish half of each dish - it was that bad. then, we ordered the pizza with kale, thinking how can pizza be bad - but it was ... bad & super-duper-salty!!! my last attempt to like ubuntu was with the dessert - the winter citrus float - can i say sweet sugared candy? i couldn't even finish half of that and i have a sweet tooth!!!

                          i have traveled throughout the world - eaten at the top restaurants in every destination ... so i consider myself a true foodie - a connoisseur of food. BUT i left ubuntu so depressed & confused - feeling like i was an anomaly - that i must be sooo screwed not to like one of the top 10 restuarants in the US. i had not read one negative comment about ubuntu UNTIL you "opionatedchef"!

                          thank you! thank you! i am not insane!!!

                          BTW - the service was really good from the minute we stepped into the restaurant. the ambience was peaceful and surreal. our waitress was excellent. the food just wasn't my cup of tea (AND i love vegetable dishes!!!)

                          2 Replies
                          1. re: abs

                            were the grits undersalted or too salty? (opinionated chef said they were undersalted)....what made them too bad to eat?

                            After reading your comment, all I know is that pizzas were too salty (most of the CH reports on the pizza haven't been that positive) and that the dessert was too sweet (it has also been indicated that the desserts weren't a highlight I believe).

                            I do know from your post that the food isn't your 'cup of tea'. But that tells me very little about whether it might be mine or not. (though not to worry, I will be going soon and look forward to judging for myself).

                            1. re: abs

                              abs, thank YOU! We all like to feel "I'm not the only one." So as of today, there are 4 or 5 of us(who have posted, that is) on the " Just Say No to Ubuntu- It's a Hoax" bus. I am a little confused by your post. The food tasted BAD? I had nothing that tasted BAD. I just had plenty that tasted BORING, unseasoned, flat, particularly the potatoes and the grits dishes. And EVERY dish, except the soup, the almonds, the sunchokes and the desserts, was SKIMPY to the point of being unethical. You know, it's funny, after 40 years of restaurant going, I find myself more incensed by THIS experience than any other in recent memory. And while I feel that I want to play "the white knight" and save other CHs the wasted money, I realize that this controversy makes some people all the more determined to try it and judge for themselves.

                              Here's a laugh: In my fantasy(a la every person who has been convinced NOT to go to Ubuntu- gives 10% of the cost of the dinner they didn't buy at U- to a world hunger organization- and in a month, we've ended hunger in a major 3rd world country.

                              p.s. my Love says i have to get on with my life; it's only a dinner. so be it. i need to finish my "annual Ca. vaca." restnt reports...