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Mar 31, 2008 12:09 PM

Oh, Ubuntu... how I love thee.

After all the hype, I couldn’t stand it any longer – I had to try Ubuntu. I made reservations and planned for a day of wine and food. We made our way to Napa this past Saturday and, after what turned out to be an absolutely amazing meal, I am certain that there will be many more trips to come.

The four of us chose to have the evening’s tasting menu. We also included 3 supplemental courses which were served family style. We had:

chilled GREEN GARLIC vichyssoise
fingerling potato, aged black garlic

*chickpeas with manchego
red pepper quenelles with mint, olive vinaigrette

RADISHES with local chevre and nori
banyuls vinaigrette, smoked salt, HONG VIT

“crumble” of dried carrot, almond and mace

cauliflower in a cast-iron pot with our vadouvan
roast-puree-shoots-“couscous”, CORIANDER SPROUTS

*pizza with slow-cooked KALES and garlic
chili oil, parmesan, & RED RUSSIAN KALE pesto and fried local farm egg

smoked anson mills grits with a slow farm egg
blue bottle “red eye” gravy, BORDEAUX SPINACH

*mushroom pizza bianco
puree of the trimmings, bellwether ricotta

scharffen berger chocolate souffle
ROSEMARY ice cream and candied hazelnuts


We also had two bottles of wine, a South African white (I wasn’t paying much attention when this was ordered) and a bottle of Groth Cabernet Sauvignon. The Groth was incredibly closed (which left me a little worried) and they were happy to decent the wine for us. Fortunately, it opened up wonderfully – every sip was better than the last. I’ll be certainly to get myself on their mailing list.

Put plainly, the food was phenomenal. Some dishes were beyond that, providing a glimpse of the type of eye-opening cuisine I had hoped for at other Bay Area restaurants.

Chez Panisse was one of those restaurants. More or less the birthplace of California cuisine, I read all the accolades about how their simple preparations were absolutely revelatory: “THIS is what *insert item* is supposed to taste like!” I can’t say how incredibly disappointed I was when I actually dined there for the first time. While the food was “good,” nothing was awe-inspiring and left me with the impression that I could make the vast majority of their dishes at home as well or better than what I had that evening (albeit not dishes that require a wood-burning oven, etc., though I felt other restaurants with the same equipment resources could have done as well or better). I suffered the pain of an experience not living up to expectations.

Well, certain dishes at Ubuntu proved to be revelatory, the eye-openers I had hoped for at Chez Panisse. The radish dish was absolutely incredible. THIS is what radishes should taste like! The combination of chevre and nori was lovely. Even my “I don’t like radishes” friend loved it making this a 4 for 4 “wow” dish. The cauliflower was a close second – once the toasted bread was gone, we attacked the cast ion pot with our forks. The scent of the vadouvan was practically intoxicating. Yet another 4 for 4 “wow” dish. Mind you, the vichyssoise and carrot dish were not far behind.

We did not have a single complaint about the food. The service had a few bobbles here and there; however, given the more casual nature of the restaurant, we barely noticed. The staff seemed a bit reserved at the beginning, though this was probably our own fault. We needed to try two tables before finally being seated at a third: our 6:30PM reservation meant that the blinding sun was perfectly angled at these first two tables. I’m sure the thoughts of “ugh, high maintenance” went through their minds, though they quickly proved to be incredibly warm and friendly.

One of my friends checked his watch when we received our bill – we had been there for 2.5 hours. It certainly didn’t feel that long… I suppose time really does fly when you’re having fun! The bill came with an assortment of mignardise: gelees, cookies, madeleines, caramels, and saffron lollies. With about a 25% tip, our individual financial contribution to the evening was $115 (the wine alone was around $120 of the total bill). Although we were very full as we made our exit, we couldn’t help but get caught up by the scent of the cauliflower dish being whisked to other tables. Oh. My. God.

Count me among the impressed!

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  1. Thanks for the report about the tasting menu. I've been very undecided about this but I think we will do it and add supplements when we see anything interesting going by.

    Sorry you didn't have a great experience at Chez Panisse, but like Ubuntu, there are those dishes that make you just go 'wow' ... but it isn't every dish.

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

    11 Replies
    1. re: rworange

      I'm to the point that I'm willing to give Chez Panisse another chance but, as the adage goes, "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me." Hopefully I'll be able to whistle another tune after the next visit. :)

      1. re: jrhsfcm

        We went with the tasting menu and it was pretty close to what you had with some minor variations. Our only additional dish was the almonds. That is quite a generous serving of almonds ... my friend said when he first saw it he didn't think we could possibly eat all of them ... we managed though.

        Not much I can add that hasn't been said about these dishes. While I expected the spicing for the cauliflower, I was surprised how incredibly rich this dish was. We left the toast because IMO it muted some of the flavors and I wanted to catch every nuance.

        Your comment about Chez Panisse not making anything that you couldn't make at home is interesting in terms of Ubuntu. It is one of the few restaurants that the more they alter the food ... play with it ... the better it is. Usually when restaurants do this ... whether in presentation or ingrediants, it ruins the dish. The prettier the dish ... the more flavor is sucked out. The more complex ... trying too hard and more often unsuccessful and fussy.

        That is the alure to me of Chez Panisse where they take simple and improvie on it. If you do go again go during the summer especially when tomatoes are at the height.

        Anyway, with Ubuntu ... the stuff you might not make at home upped the flavor. That carrot crumble dish was an example.

        When they squeeze carrot juice, they use the leftover for the crumble ... they dry it and do something else I'm forgetting and mix it with spices. They use that same crumble to coat the rim of the glass of carrot/orange juice which paired nicely.

        That was a lovley dish with surprising warm pools of carrot sauce. Very pretty ... as are all the dishes and dipping the carrots in the sauce, then crumble ... just great. Like Chez Panisse, the carrots and orange sections had intense tastiness ... the soul of those flavors.

        Speaking of which ... the vichyssoise used kolibri rather than green garlic and was garnished with pea shoots. This is really stupid for this to be so memorable since they were micro pea shoots little bigger than a thumbnail ... however that was the most intense sweet pea flavor I've ever had.

        It was interesting that I had a similar dish at the Dining Room at the Ritz Carleton ... only in that case it was a pea soup ... yet the presentation was similar and the flavors coaxed out of the veggies were intense. Ubuntu won for presentation due to the color contrasts and interplay of flavors. The Ritz was focused on the pea flavor which was memorable for me.

        The green kolabri puree was presented in a large bowl topped with pea shoots. the server had a pitcher of vichyssoise which was poured on top. Eating this it was so pretty with the green swirled in the white of the potato ... and the delicious accents of the aged black garlic. The kolibri tasted ... green ... and veggie sweet ... and like spring.

        It was also the biggest amuse I've ever had ... twice the portion of the Ritz and really the size of a regular bowl of vichyssoise that would be served at most restaurants of this class.

        The tasting menu at this point I feel is misnamed. It is really a prix fix. I don't see why the whole table would need to order it other than timing and that could be arranged.

        Given the way that some of these dishes are served with multiple flavors scattered around the plate, I'm glad we both ordered it ... most of the dishes would not be easy to split and certain elements would be lost.

        I was surprised how kid-friendly Ubunyu is. It is a lively atmosphere with the tables comfortably spaced apart ... and really easy access to the sidewalk should a child need some time out.

        The little boy at the table near us was really happy with his pizza. He was deciding between that and and the a grilled cheese sandwich. Don't know what else was on the kid's menu.

        No saffron lolipop on our visit (boo) but we had a nice micro French meyer lemon macaroon with strawberry center. I also liked the micro madeline quite a bit. The strawberry gelee was very good with a pleasant lingering aftertaste.

        1. re: rworange

          "Your comment about Chez Panisse not making anything that you couldn't make at home is interesting in terms of Ubuntu. It is one of the few restaurants that the more they alter the food ... the better it is. Usually when restaurants do this ... whether in presentation or ingrediants, it ruins the dish."

          Aha! the Chez Panisse mental straightjacket rears its head again! This attitude -- that applying technique to food ruins it -- is a common one here in Northern California. But, as rworange is finding out, like most generalizations it is often false.

          The best new school chefs use transformations to concentrate the flavors as well as to create contrasting textures that don't exist in the food's original form. This is the same philosophy that drives classic French technique, but the modern take is to focus on the ingredients and lighten up on adding external crutches like butter and cream.

          For example, one of the most interesting dishes I had last year was a carrot 'raviolo' at Coi. It was made from carrot juice (reduced to concentrate the flavors) mixed with subtle spices and turned into a ravioli-textured square with agar-agar. It wasn't a filled ravioli, and it wasn't a carrot, it was something new, and it exploded with pure carrot essence.

          Coi, Manresa, and Ubuntu are at the center of this revolution, and it is just as important as the ingredient revolution from Berkeley was 25 years ago.

          1. re: Paul H

            There's nothing new or revolutionary about this. The whole time Chez Panisse has been open, some people loved it for its simplicity, while others preferred more original, technique-driven food. Some people like both. It's just a matter of personal taste.

            What Coi, Manresa, and Ubuntu are up to descends directly from nouvelle cuisine, which started in France around 40 years ago, and was itself an evolution of haute cuisine.

            1. re: Robert Lauriston

              Agreed that these techniques grew out of the nouvelle cuisine movement in France. What make them revolutionary here in Northern California is that we are finally seeing a break in the lock-hold the Chez Panisse philosophy has had on chefs and restaurants. Coi, Manresa and Ubuntu are also evolutionary, as each has adopted the same fanatical emphasis on really top quality ingredients found at Chez Panisse and its spin-offs. David Kinch has a biodynamic garden he sources produce from, and Daniel Patterson can be found at the Ferry Plaza Farmer's Market every Saturday morning.

              1. re: Paul H

                Eh ... I didn't think of this .. but you summed up why I think that Ubuntu is revolutionary ... as you said

                "Coi, Manresa, and Ubuntu are at the center of this revolution, and it is just as important as the ingredient revolution from Berkeley was 25 years ago"

                It is the Chez Panissee asthetics taken to a new level ... but like CP .. it won't all be mind-blowing.

                1. re: Paul H

                  Chez Panisse never had any sort of a lock-hold around here.

                  There were always competing restaurants whose chefs were making creative, technically elaborate food. In the 80s and 90s, for example:

                  Masa Kobayashi / Masa's
                  Roland Passot / La Folie
                  Hubert Keller / Fleur de Lys
                  Alain Rondelli / Ernie's
                  Thomas Keller / French Laundry
                  Michael Mina / Aqua
                  Ron Siegel / Masa's
                  Daniel Patterson / Elisabeth Daniel

                2. re: Robert Lauriston

                  Was it Jeremiah Tower who said Alice Waters "wasn't a chef, but a shopper?" It was meant to diss her, but in the final analysis her "shopping" has influenced those of us who loiter on foodie boards far more than any chef has.

                  1. re: Xiao Yang

                    I thought that was some French chef, who said "That isn't cooking, that's shopping."

                    1. re: Xiao Yang

                      Alice Waters doesn't attribute it to any particular chef. "'When we were about 10 years old, the French chefs used to come over to see what was going on at Chez Panisse,' Waters said. 'And they would say "Oh, that's not cooking, that's shopping." I was so intimidated by that. I just felt like maybe we weren't doing enough. Now I'm very prideful. It is shopping,' she said, pounding the white tablecloth. 'It is shopping.'"--Contra Costa Times, 9/26/2001

                      As the story went the first time I heard in 1980, from a friend who worked in the cafe when it first opened, Alice flew out to a big chef event in New York. The other chefs had ice sculptures and similar old-school presentation pieces, her entry was a simple salad of fresh goat cheeses and mesclun, neither of which were then available anywhere else in the US.

                  2. re: Paul H

                    Yeah, I have to drag myself over to Coi ... and Orson.

                    I had strong feelings about the silliness of foam until I tried it. In the right hands these are wonderful. However, there are too many copy cat hacks that poorly execute techniques ... which I guess applies to all styles of cooking.

            2. OK, here I go posting about a restaurant I haven't eaten at (you can count on me, rw!) but it addresses some perplexity I have about the basic premises of Ubuntu and other restaurants like it. But maybe I just take food too seriously.

              "RADISHES with local chevre and nori
              banyuls vinaigrette, smoked salt, HONG VIT"
              "The radish dish was absolutely incredible. THIS is what radishes should taste like! The combination of chevre and nori was lovely. Even my “I don’t like radishes” friend loved it"

              Growing up, we had a backyard "Victory" Garden and grew our own radishes among other things. I would pull up a radish, lop off the stem with my pocket knife, rinse it off under the faucet for the garden hose, pop it into my mouth and chew on it. Somehow I thought THAT was what radishes were supposed to taste like.

              Was I naive? Were radishes and other garden vegetables put on this earth by whoever put them on earth as a challenge to the skills of cooks to make them taste good? In the process, doesn't the addition of ingredients high in saturated fats and salts negate the simple healthiness of a fresh vegetable eaten "neat", and run counter to the reasons for being a vegetarian in the first place? And what do the Vilcabambans in the Andes put on THEIR veggies?

              15 Replies
              1. re: Xiao Yang

                NIce thoughtful post, XY

                It is almost the Chez Panisse vs Ubutu difference.

                Chez Panisse is what you describe.

                Ubutu puts a spin on it that and ups the deliciousness ... and while radishes are attractive ... they are prettier in the Ubuntu presentation the thin-shaved slices accented by the higly colored exterior ... some techni-colored like the watermelon radishes ... it was just the way they were arranged on the plate in a riot of curls and twists.

                The fat content on the dishes ... well you were just getting dabs of cheese as I've said in other posts ... a little more than a tablespoon ... the goat cheese with the nori was a nice complement to the radishes in terms of each highlighting the natural flavor. And don't the French already put butter on radishes ... so ...

                That being said, we didn't like the radish dish as much as the OP. The thing for both of us was that the mustard-y dressing was a little too assertive. My friend spent the dinner thinking of what he would prefer as a dressing. But the dish was good enough that it fascinated him about how it could be perfected to his tastes.

                1. re: Xiao Yang

                  I think it's analogous to the way that a little parmesan can make a bolognese taste more beefy, or a sprinkling of salt can make roasted beets tasty more beety. I was definitely skeptical about the potential for intensive technique to coax flavors out of a vegetable that you don't find in a simple preparation. Ubuntu has changed my perspective.

                  Note that Ubuntu is not a vegetarian restaurant, and is certainly not concerned with being "healthy." It's devoted to celebrating the vegetable, and sometimes that celebration involves butter and cheese.

                  1. re: Morton the Mousse

                    It's not vegetarian? I haven't heard of any dish that would make it not vegetarian, though it's certainly not vegan.

                    1. re: Xiao Yang

                      They just don't serve meat and fish ... it is different. There is no other veg restaurant that I haven't been acutely aware of the fact ... even at Greens in its prime.

                      1. re: rworange

                        I think they are being coy (not coi) with their "we just don't serve meat or fish" to keep from scaring people (like me) away. classifies it as vegetarian (not simply vegetarian-friendly) and some of the reviews have referred to it as a vegetarian restaurant. Not that there's anything wrong with that!


                        1. re: Xiao Yang

                          Cute ... chuckle ... It is just that I never even remember the meat or miss it when there. It is like ordering a chese pizza at any pizza joint ... the animal matter just doesn't matter... and just because you order a cheese pizza doesn't necessarily make a restaurant vegetarian. At Ubuntu, there just if isn't the option of animal-stuff ... as opposed to places like Greens or Cafe Gratitude where I say with a strained, insincere smile ... "oh yes ... that tofu is so tasty.

                          I mean ... do you consider Cowgirl Creamery or the Cheeseboard vegetarian? Same deal, only a restaurant.

                          1. re: rworange

                            See what I mean? You don't WANT to think of them as vegetarian (like my attitude toward Rainbow Foods, I guess).

                            If they use animal rennet in the cheese, technically they aren't vegetarian, though I think some vegetarians aren't sticklers about it. On the other hand, it's apparently not that difficult to make cheese with vegetarian rennet; even mass producers like Cabot do it, to make their cheeses kosher milchig.

                        2. re: rworange

                          I ate brunch at Miss Millie's (in the early days, when it was good) two or three times before I realized that it was a vegetarian restaurant.

                          When I first heard about Ubuntu, I thought it was going to be like L’Arpège, where Alain Passard is developing a "vegetable cuisine" in which meat and fish sometimes play supporting roles.

                        3. re: Xiao Yang

                          Whoops! I meant to write: it's not a "vegetarian" restaurant.

                      2. re: Xiao Yang

                        It's pretty traditional in French restaurants (or homes) to serve radishes with butter and salt. This seems like a modern variation.

                        I didn't try this dish, but I will officially join the Ubuntu underwhelmed. Suspect I would appreciate their philosophy or technique more had the food dazzled me. The best dishes definitely brought out the best in vegetables (especially the asparagus, however it was prepared, and the cauliflower). But most were beautiful, occasionally complicated (pulverized Robuchon potatoes, and red eye gravy, minus the ham), not especially flavorful or memorable.

                        I am a vegetable lover, and appreciate the subtlety of Chez Panisse Cafe; but consider CP heavily spiced and complicated compared to the dishes at Ubuntu. While I would recommend it to wealthy vegetarians driving north of the city, I would probably not urge other friends to make a special trip.

                        1. re: Windy

                          When we had radishes on he dinner table I think we had a little dish of salt for dipping them in, if desired, but that hardly amounts to a preparation. The notion of butter on a radish just seems plainly weird, though.

                          1. re: Xiao Yang

                            Try it at home. The butter counteracts the bite.

                            A radish with salt on a buttered baguette is an unexpected treat--it will make even disbelievers into radish lovers. No nori or chevre required.

                            1. re: Windy

                              Why on earth would one want to eat a radish and counteract the bite? "Bite" is what radishes are all about, IMHO.

                            2. re: Xiao Yang

                              The best preparation of radishes I've had is buttered pan di mie topped with paper thin radishes and fresh anchovies.

                            3. re: Windy

                              Thanks Windy for the post. I'll have to try it one day for myself.