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Wine Country: Ubuntu or Bistro Don Giovanni for dinner?

We have one more open night to fill for our trip in May and are trying to decide between these 2 spots. We're foodies who love Italian, but who also live in NYC where we can get a lot of it. Then again, there are great vegetarian spots here too (we're not vegetarians though). Thoughts?

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  1. Bistro Don Giovanni by far! Ubuntu is great, and the food is wonderfully prepared and creative, but portions tend to be very small, and unless you plan to order large quantities of food to share, you have a good chance of leaving hungry. Don Giovanni's is one of those places in the Valley that you can always count on for an incredible meal. The food is fantastic, and regularly receives great reviews. Michael Bauer, food critic for the SF Chronicle regularly includes Don Giovanni's in his yearly top 100 list: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/listing... This has been a local's favorite place for years, and it remains one of my favorite spots to recommend to tourists as well, as I know they will not be disappointed. For more info you can visit their website: http://www.bistrodongiovanni.com/menu...

    1 Reply
    1. re: Michelle Grinnell

      I keep reading about these tiny portions & leaving hungry & I just don't get it. On our last visit my wife & I spent about $70 (no wine) & left stuffed. I am a big eater, but not a vegetarian. There was plenty of food. And it was superb!

    2. Ubuntu. BDG serves perfectly decent, fairly uninspired Italian food. I wouldn't even place it within the Bay Area's top five Italian restaurants. Coming from NY, I don't think you will be impressed by BDG. Ubuntu, OTOH, is a completely unique restaurant experience. The food is outstanding, and unlike anything you will have anywhere else. Also, coming from NY, I don't think you'll be at all put off by the price point at Ubuntu (dinner for two will set you back $80-$100, more if you like to drink expensive wine).

      1. IMHO, it is a no-brainer in favor of Ubuntu. The cooking is outstanding, the design is beautiful and the restaurant has a very unique, Northern California feel. The plates are small, but not tiny. I found that for 2 women: almonds, olives plus 4 plates and a dessert leaves us feeling very satisfied. And I am not a vegetarian... Now I want to go again, soon! (The wine list is competitively priced and interesting.)

        1 Reply
        1. re: Madge

          Second the no-brainer sentiment. You can great over-the-top Italian all over the place. You can't get what Ubuntu is doing anywhere else.

        2. I have had VERY bad service at both restaurants!!!!!!!!! I am a chef in the valley and have also lived in NYC and feel that you would NOT be impressed by either places. I would suggest Celedon(Fusion/Californian) or Angele(French) in the Hat building. If you had to choose either restaurant choose Don Giovanni. Ubuntu is just a fancy yoga studio with vegetarian fare. If you want more recommendations let me know!

          4 Replies
          1. re: chezmargie

            Wow - I lived and professionally reviewed restaurants in the valley for several years and had nothing but bad experiences at Angele and Celadon and those two are the LAST restaurants I would recommend for Napa Valley (along with Cindy's Backstreet and Mustards).

            1. re: Carrie 218

              Trying to get a handle on your tastes. Are you saying that Cindy's is among the last restaurants you would recommend? This is surprising, to me, in light of the recent comments by Maria Lorraine and opinionated chef.

              1. re: wolfe

                For me, yes. I have eaten three or four times and had mediocre service, food that was cold in the middle, muddled flavors, and poorly-conceived combinations. My Napa Valley favorites (in relative order and lamenting the closing of Pilar and admitting I haven't eaten at Meadowood since the chef change or Ad Hoc) are:

                French Laundry
                Bistro Jeanty
                Martini House
                Bistro Don Giovanni
                Bounty Hunter
                Zins Valley
                Boon Fly
                Go Fish

                Places I don't bother with anymore (not in order):
                Julia's Kitchen
                Tra Vigne

                1. re: Carrie 218

                  Bistro Don Giovanni and Ubuntu are not in the same class by any means. Ubuntu is far better. More unique and creative food, while Giovanni and the same old stuff that you can find anywhere. Ubuntu serves the freshest and cleanest tasting vegetables you will ever taste. I do not suggest getting the tasting menu since this will be your first trip. Try a bunch of things and i guarantee you that you will leave satisfied. Everything is delicious. . .everything!

          2. I haven't been to either, but one thing that sets Ubuntu apart among vegetarian restaurants is that the chef is not a vegetarian.

            9 Replies
              1. re: wolfe

                I think it is in that I hate health food but I actually eat very well. I don't like "vegetarian cooking" but I often don't eat meat. I think it's a mindset. Maybe it's folly. I doubt it.

                1. re: wolfe

                  Learning that made me more curious to try the place. I think somebody who loves and cooks with meat might be more aware of how a dish could be improved by some stock, bacon, or whatever, and look for creative ways to achieve similar effects.

                  Jeremy Fox did a stage with Fergus Henderson, and at Manresa he made the charcuterie and was in charge of the pig dinners.

                  1. re: Robert Lauriston

                    How does meat stock or a bacon-like flavor make a vegetable dish better to a vegetarian or a vegan? It probably works for omnivores. My daughter, the vegan, eschews fake meats.

                    1. re: wolfe

                      I'm interested in how the food tastes to me!

                      I figure a chef who loves meat will be more aware of how, for example, stock would add umami, depth, and complexity to a dish, and look for vegetarian alternatives to get a similar effect.

                      1. re: Robert Lauriston

                        So a vegetable can only have umami, depth or complexity if it has meat essence?

                        1. re: wolfe

                          Where do you get that? He specifically said "and look for vegetarian alternatives to get a similar effect."

                          1. re: JasmineG

                            I realize that but I interpret that to mean that he wants the UDC of what is meat reproduced by vegetable sources. Why? Cannot the vegetables have vegetable UDC without imitating meatiness. Does it take someone who eats meat to know that a roasted vegetable stock can make a improvement in the depth of flavor of a dish?

                            1. re: wolfe

                              I think he's referring to the fact that most vegetarian cooking is bland and one-dimensional. Ubuntu delivers the depth of flavor and umami that I normally associate with cooking that incorporates meat stock and/or cured pork.

              2. Bistro Don Giovanni is good, or it was when I went years ago. I remember it because it was the first Italian meal I had in the Bay Area that I thought was on par with ones I'd had at the better neighborhood Italian restaurants in NYC. I don't think it would interesting or impressive for someone coming to the Bay Area from NYC.

                I can't think of a restaurant in NYC that's similar to Ubuntu, so I'd cast my vote in that camp - while I didn't find my meal there to be life-changing, I thought it was very good. Seasonal vegetables can be surprisingly different on the two coasts, so it may be fun to see what's local and seasonal here, vs. at home.

                10 Replies
                1. re: daveena

                  When I had lunch with a group of chowpals a couple of weeks ago, in dissecting the meal afterwards one conclusion I came up with is that a lot of the people who are disappointed with Ubuntu are somewhat jaded by the fact that in the Bay Area there are many, many restaurants that pay attention to and do interesting things with fresh, seasonal vegetables, and many people who cook that way at home. For them, Ubuntu is just another restaurant that serves good vegetable dishes. But for other people, it can be revelatory.

                  However, on the issue of portions, I can't understand how people can be leaving hungry with such bulky food! Perhaps because the food didn't fulfill some need or expectation people don't feel satiated, but I can't understand being physically hungry.

                  1. re: Ruth Lafler

                    So there are people who whip up at home a bowl of frosted feuilletine with bananas, vanilla ice cream, warm parsnip milk?

                    Don't know what you folks ordered. There are some dishes that have that Chez Panisse quality to them of being simple ... like the almonds with sea salt and lavendar.

                    My guess at this time is it is the more creative dishes where upbuntu excels ... however for people who are milking parsnips .. well.

                    My theory is that ubuntu has some of the simpler stuff on the menu for the less adventurous.

                    My thoughts from reading feedback is that the people who want to have hearty, rustic meals are the ones not liking Ubuntu. There's a few here and there that might fall into the category you described but I thnk they just ordered wrong.

                    Anyway, would have to know more about the OP's tastes. I would just comment that ubuntu is not a vegetarian restaurant. They just don't serve meat. There is none of the usual nonsense of tofu and brown rice. It would be like going to an Italian restaurant and ordering cheese manicotti and labeling the restaurant as vegetarian.

                    1. re: rworange

                      Choosing to order a vegetarian meal at an Italian restaurant doesn't make it a vegetarian restaurant.

                      Ubuntu doesn't give you that choice. if you go there, you're having a vegetarian meal. No meat, no fish, just plants, dairy products, and eggs.

                      1. re: rworange

                        well, I was one of the chowpals at that particular lunch, and thought it was very good, and agree that it wasn't revelatory, (even though I don't generally cook that way at home :-)) although I suspect (based on our post lunch post mortem over wine tasting :-)) that I probably thought the meal was better than Ruth (and perhaps a few others) did. That said, it was some of the simpler dishes we sampled, notably the asparagus, that I liked the most. Nothing like a (near) perfect rendition of asparagus early in the season to make me fall in love...

                        Funny that you mention the almonds, as that was the one dish I really did NOT like. But then, I am one of those people who thinks that lavendar belongs in soap, not in food...

                        and all of the above notwithstanding, even though I haven't been to Don Giavanni and while I haven't been to NYC in about four years or more and can't say I am up on its food scene, I do tend to agree with those that say that for a New Yorker visititing the area it seems like a no-brainer: looking at the BDG menu on line it looks like you could find many similar dishes at several other bay area restaurants, and also in NYC. Ubuntu seems to be more unique.

                        Though I do have to say, the roasted stuffed peppers at BDG sound great. Has anyone tried them recently?

                        1. re: susancinsf

                          Annie Somerville also cooks and eats meat at home; however like Greens, Ubuntu is a vegetarian restaurant and pretending otherwise is silly. Especially if you haven't eaten there!

                          I was among those at the same lunch (where we tried at least 10 dishes) who left unimpressed. Not ravenously hungry, but it wasn't hard to devour ice cream, a few bites of porchetta and meatloaf, and five tastes of cheese less than an hour later.

                          I also didn't like the almonds. For me it was the sugar rather than the lavender (which isn't that different from rosemary, found on salted marconas at TJs). The asparagus were exemplary.

                      2. re: Ruth Lafler

                        I'd have to say that the one restaurant that gave me the most "wow" moments with vegetable dishes was Lupa in NYC, circa 2000. That was the first place where I saw what deep roasting and an ungodly amount of olive oil can do to transform a vegetable. And where I learned that chickpeas can make me swoon. Number two is Chez Panisse, for the unparalleled quality of vegetables and impeccable minimalist preparations.

                        I was expecting Ubuntu to be number three, and hoping that it would wow me with unusual flavor combinations and preps. I found the tasting menu a little disorienting in that the approach and influences seemed to veer wildly from one end of the spectrum (rustic and hearty) to the other (ultra-refined and innovative.)

                        I'll break down the tasting menu that I had (I posted on it before, but I've been re-analyzing it, trying to figure out what kept my meal from being truly great) - according to my perception of where dishes lie on the rustic => refined spectrum, and the chefs/restaurants they reminded me of:

                        Fried sunchokes with romesco sauce: ultra-rustic and hearty; Suzanne Goin
                        Garden greens with pear & almond chutney, maple and vinegar dressing: rustic; Chez Panisse, if you combined the salad course with dessert
                        Radishes with local chevre and nori, banyuls vinaigrette, smoked salt, hong vit: refined and innovative; unusual but brilliant flavor combination made me think of Grant Achatz.
                        Cauliflower in a cast-iron pot with vadouvan: refined presentation, rustic flavors; Alfred Portale, Daniel Boulud, Tom Colicchio. Something about this dish screamed "New York" too me.
                        Farm egg with robuchon potatoes and red wine, bordeaux spinach, homemade brioche: refined flavors, rustic presentation; Thomas Keller.
                        Winter citrus parfait: Refined flavors, rustic presentation at the macrolevel with some molecular gastro influenced components; Will Goldfarb.

                        So I think the preparations don't fall solidly in the Bay Area tradition of minimalist prep of high quality veg - I see a lot of New York, LA and Chicago as well. I'd personally like to see more dishes similar to the radish dish.

                        Cafe Boulud in NYC splits its menu into four components: "La Tradition", "La Saison", "Le Potager", and "Le Voyager", with each section representing a different style. I'd like to see Ubuntu split its menu into "rustic/hearty" and "innovative/refined" - right now, I feel the menu just isn't very cohesive. Maybe splitting it could help people identify the kinds of dishes they'd prefer, and to create a more cohesive menu for themselves.

                        1. re: daveena

                          Thanks everyone for the informative posts. I think we're going to try Ubuntu. Daveena, I think I have to agree with your point on there not being any (or at least many) similar restaurants to Ubuntu in NYC. Yes, there are great vegetarian options -- Angelica's Kitchen, Blossom, Gobo, etc., but from what I've read here and other posts, it seems that Ubuntu is focusing on elevating and celebrating vegetables and their ability to be the centerpiece of a meal, whereas most vegetarian restaurants here in NY focus more on replacing meat products with things like seitan and tofu that they try to make taste like meat.
                          While there are amazing restaurants such as Lupa (also one of my very favorites) where you can find ethereal vegetarian dishes, it seems that being able to experience a restaurant that aims to do so with every dish, is worth trying. Plus, how bad can a restaurant that conjurs Colicchio, Portale and Keller really be?
                          Lastly, my husband and I will be there for long enough that we are fortunate to be trying several amazing-sounding restaurants (which I've listed below). I feel comfortable enough with the reviews on these boards that if Ubuntu isn't necessary revelatory, it will at least be an experience different than what we would ordinarily get here in NYC! Thanks again for everyone's input...I will report back what we thought after our trip in May.
                          We will also be dining at....

                          Willi's Wine Bar
                          Cindy's backstreet (we tried for Terra but it is closed the night we would be able to go)
                          Ad Hoc
                          French Laundry
                          FARM at Carneros
                          Boonfly (for breakfast)

                          1. re: dreamer

                            " I feel comfortable enough with the reviews on these boards that if Ubuntu isn't necessary revelatory, it will at least be an experience different than what we would ordinarily get here in NYC!"

                            Exactly! And isn't that what you want when you travel? That's why I always recommend visitors against places like Bistro Jeanty, which is classically French. If I were visiting California, I'd no more want to eat in a classical French restaurant than I'd want to eat in one in Mexico or Morocco or China. As a local, I like having variety of cuisines available, but when I'm visiting, I want to focus on the local cuisine.

                            1. re: dreamer

                              dreamer: you've made some terrific choices. Some thoughts on favorite things to order at the restaurants you've selected:

                              * Cindy's: duckburger is awesome.
                              * Ad Hoc: of course, the fried chicken every other Monday is the best. If it's not on during your visit, you might try sitting at the bar where you can order from the day's menu a la carte -- get to skip the cheese and dessert if you want to skip some calories.
                              * French Laundry: Seal and Tom Cruise broke into song there on Saturday night (Heidi and Katie as well as Kate Beckingsdale were there with them). Maybe you'll see a star during your meal.
                              * Farm: build in time for cocktails before dinner -- a more urban atmosphere than typical in Napa. On Friday and Saturday evenings, there's music near the fire pit outdoor seating beginning at 6:45pm or so. On the menu, I like the risotto, chicken and seasonal specials.
                              * Boon Fly: on Saturday and Sunday, I go for "green eggs and ham." During the week, I'm good with the Irish oatmeal with a bowl of fruit. I don't order them but the donuts are definitely a fave.

                              Have a great time!

                              1. re: cortez

                                Wonderful Cortez...thank you! Unless I miscalculated, I called and think we will be at Ad Hoc for a Wednesday when they'll be serving fried chicken. I made the mistake of already telling my partner in crime this and he's as excited as if I had told him the Red Sox (don't ask) had called and need him to fill in at first base. As for me, I am full of shame as I sit here picturing how what is already going to be one of the most highly anticipated meals of my life, would be even more fun if capped by a sighting like the one you mentioned above...sigh :). Thanks again!