Ubuntu - the James Beard Dinner report
I have dined at Ubuntu in Napa a number of times – but always for lunch. Fortune brought me back into the Napa valley on a Friday evening and I convinced my sister to join me to experience dinner. Fortune could not have smiled more fortuitously as chef Jeremy Fox had just returned from New York where he prepared a meal for the James Beard House – and it was this meal we was recreating as a tasting. There is no way to express how lucky we are to have the likes of Jeremy Fox and his wife, Deanie, in our vicinity. In my last few years of expansive eating, little compares to the inventiveness and imagination being expressed in this Yoga studio. Besides my recent Ursawa experience, through this meal, this restaurant has moved very near the top of my best-of list.
A few regrets that I did not snap pictures of every course, but hopefully a full description will suffice. Having heard much of the watermelon soup, I was thrilled that a shot glass amuse was our first taste. Cool Watermelon and Lemongrass Soup made with coconut milk, basil seed “caviar,” and mint, the inside of the glass had a small smear of crème fraîche and a fresh miniature pansy. Thick and unctuous, the watermelon was immediately barely discernable, but evident by the red color of the offering and the bright and clean flavor behind the rich coconut milk.
A second amuse was also offered, one of Jeremy’s signature dishes, Carta da Musica with Ceci and Rocket – wafer thin crisps made in their stone oven, topped with a seasoned teaspoon of creamed chickpeas, topped with a bit of preserved lemon, parsley, black pepper, and a shaving of Parmesan cheese. Both of the amuses were paired perfectly with 2004 Domaine Carneros Brut by Taitinger.
Our first official course arrived (and was photographed) and the bounteous size and the beauty stunned us. Quite frankly, in ordering a tasting menu, one expects lots of tastes more like the sizes of our amuses. This was a very large bowl of English Peas in Shell Consommé topped with fresh pea sprouts, chunks of macadamia nuts, and a fine grating of white chocolate with a few leaves of fresh chocolate mint. Brilliantly paired with Cade Sauvignon Blanc, Napa, 2007, the overall impact of the intensity of this dish is difficult to describe. The consommé was perfectly clear and the unexpected flavor combination of the fresh peas, nuts, and white chocolate was one of the most revolutionary I have ever tasted. The chocolate was a very small component, but the oily coating of its sweet melting in one’s mouth, coupled with the bright explosions of fresh peas and crunchy nuts, was nothing less than astounding.
Our next pouring was a 2007 Robert Foley Pinot Blanc from Napa. Honestly, upon first tasting we were not as thrilled with this wine as we were with the Cade Sauvignon Blanc. That was, anyway, until the food came… This wine was paired with a plating of Grilled Peach and French Bean Panzanella with fresh Burrata, Basil Stem Dressing, and croutons made with Deanie’s Brioche. Again, another revelation. Trying to take a bite with all the components was the biggest challenge; tasting the rich creaminess of the burrata cheese juxtaposed with the grilled, fresh peach and fresh greens demonstrated a complex elegance most diners do not expect with mere fruits and vegetables.
Not part of the tasting menu but brought out as a complimentary course was Cucumbers with Miso “Bagna Cauda” and Olive with fried fingerling potatoes, ficoide glaciale, Parmesan cheese, and lovage. Ficoide Glaciale is ice plant and I had never tasted it before. Miniature clustered sprouts were served in addition to the cucumbers and potatoes again, again, it is the surprising combination, which creates an unusual gestalt of exciting flavors.
My sister was sad that she didn’t get to have her usual favorite, the signature Cauliflower in Cast Iron Pot. However it was quickly made up for with this James Beard concoction, a tasting of Courgettes and Succulents scented with the famous Vadouvan Spice and Panisse. This was paired with 2005 Cakebread Anderson Valley Chardonnay. This was served on two plates, the platter of freshly cut squash with fried panisse squares. The second part was the familiar cast iron pot filled with a “fettuccine” of squash and creamy vadouvan-flavored squash purée. This was easily as remarkable as the cauliflower version and my sister, being a huge squash fan, actually preferred this offering to the cauliflower. The rich, creamy curry-like flavors were well complemented with the rich, creamy-like flavors in the Cakebread Chardonnay.
Our first red wine of the evening was poured for our next course, a 2006 Ramsay Pinot Noir from the North Coast was paired with a platter of Anson Mills Grits, risotto-style with a Borage Pistou, Capucine Cappuccino, and Amaranth. The dish was studded with a few tiny fresh peppers and topped with a skin of milk, giving it a queso fresco-like flavor and of all the evening’s offerings, this was our least favorite. We are both hearty grits fans but the overall flavor was reminiscent of Mexican cuisine, something neither my sister nor I generally care for. I believe it was the combination of the peppers, corn, and queso fresco. I could easily see how a lover of Mexican food would adore the dish, reminding me of a good tamale, but it somehow seemed at odds with the cohesiveness of the rest of the meal.
Another red was poured, a 2001 Lion’s Run Cabernet Sauvignon. The initial flavors of this wine were expressively black: Black raspberry, black licorice, and black pepper. It was stunningly paired with our last savory course of the evening, Coq au Vin of Porcini with deep-fried domaine de la chance egg and a rich bordelaise sauce made from the Lion’s Run wine (made, by the way, from grapes grown in the restaurant’s own garden). Coming to the culmination of the meal, this offering was elegant and hearty. We were getting pretty full and neither of us could finish the egg, which I am not entirely convinced was necessary. Being a great mushroom, I would have been more than happy with a few of these gorgeous babies and the two sauces served; one porcini-based and the other wine-based. The hefty, dark wine worked well with the meatiness of the mushrooms which was heightened by the addition of a sexy little carrot known as a XXXXXX, purple on the outside and orange on the inside.
With that came the beginning of dessert. Again, we were served a few extra courses not on the ascribed menu. First off was a lovely palate cleanser of a Raspberry Sorbet Float, rose geranium soda with watermelon granita accented with tapioca. This was complex in its combination of flavors and also in the intensity of the raspberry sorbet.
Deanie then sent out something not on the menu, which was entirely enchanting; Miniature Apples on skewers served with her thyme-scented caramel and chopped hazelnuts. Scooping up the caramel with the apples, we were instructed to then roll them in the nuts, making a playful, adult version of caramel apples. It was all we could do to keep from licking every speck of caramel out of the bowl.
My sister had never tasted the Vanilla Bean "Cheesecake" in a Jar with blueberries with chamomile and an almond-teeccino crumble.Two were offered and we quickly asked if one could be scooped out to be brought home for her husband. Any way, at this point in our three-plus hour meal, sharing one was more than enough and thoroughly enjoyed. I am continually shocked at the folks on the ‘net who don’t get or enjoy this dessert. It is so rich and perfectly creamy, showcasing the bounty of summer berries and Deanie’s amazing skill as a pastry chef. This was paired with a splash of 2002 Topaz Late Harvest Semillon-Sauvignon Blanc made by Jeff Sowells. I felt as I had come home as I had researched and written about Sowells, a bit of an enigmatic master of botrytis-affected wines who floats about the Napa valley, always searching for fungus-covered vines.
Finally was an offering of vegetable-based mignardise, a perfect ending to a perfect evening; beet gelée, fresh fennel madeleines, miniature tomato linzer cookies, and carrot cake muffins. Despite their vegetable basis, these were all sweet and compelling, but not overly so. We were incredibly lucky to arrive early enough to nab a seat in the garden and stay well into the evening. As we passed back through the crowded interior, I felt doubly lucky as the limited seating in back is much more intimate and quiet.
Pics on the blog; www.feast-blog.com
Sounds wonderful. I'm jealous. It sounds like though the price of the tasting menu has increased, it is starting to be more of a tasting menu than just a grouping of other dishes on the menu.
Ficoide Glaciale ... I was relieved to find that it isn't what I see growing on the side of freeways ... also relieved I looked it up before harvesting my own. Seems like it was in Manressa's garden too.
re: Carrie 218
We had the same tasting menu a few days ago as we were curious to see what the Beard menu was like vs. the last terrific tasting menu we had there a few months ago. There were some repeats (cool watermelon, peas) and a tweak on the coq au vin. Our first tasting menu had this really rich porcini mushroom 3-style preparation with brioche which we liked a lot more than the grits. But the cheesecake in a jar is one of our favorite desserts in the area so we were happy with that trade. The peas and shoots in shell consomme is the perfect spring / summer dish and was one of the most pleasant surprises I've had eating in the region.
The Beard tasting menu was about $30 more expensive vs the the last tasting menu a few months ago. I don't know if it was specific to this specific tasting menu or just an overall increase.
Going back to rworange's comment about being more than a grouping of the dishes, we had people on either side of us asking the waitress if they could get some of the non-menu dishes that we were getting, but it looks like they prioritize for the tasting menus first, and if they feel they have enough ingredients left over, they might swing it. Or maybe the waitress was just giving them a hard time to make it seem like they were getting a favor.