Ubuntu, Napa Ca
A week of visiting Sonoma and Napa is always fun and relaxing. We had a series of excellent dinners, Bistro des Copains, Barndiva, Jole and finally Ubuntu.
We had heard a lot of hype about Ubuntu but we had not actually looked at a menu until we arrived.
First, I had no idea the place was as attractive as it is. A sleek, modern look and feel. The lighting for the large room is perfect and the tables well spaced to allow for normal conversation even when full.
For those who don't know, the menu is set up with smaller dishes. Similar to Jole in that you devise your own "tasting menu".
Three of us ordered six dishes which turned out to be plenty. We were very impressed with the flavors, presentation and creativity of the chef and staff.
We all shared the following:
English peas and gold shoots in a consomme of the shells with white chocolate, chocolate mint, macadamia, purple snaps. This was so light and refreshing, cited as a favorite by one of the diners
Carta da musica, homemade crispy sardinian flatbread with truffled pecorino, two arugulas, trumpet chips. This was very savory in flavor, nice presentation.
Carrot gnocchetti with tarragon and mimolette with roast oxheart, tiny raw purple haze, spiced pulp crumble. Herbs and spices went really well with the carrots.
Organic grits from arbuckle, a "62.5" egg and parmesan, roscoe's asparagus roasted in sage butter, agretti, black trumpet caviar. Wow, a lot of flavors here with a nice mix of sweet, salty and savory. Very flavorful. My favorite.
Mushroom pizza bianco with homemade goat's milk ricotta. Royal trumpet confit with a puree of the trimmings, three thymes. Mushroom pizza on steroids. A favorite of the third diner.
Cauliflower in a cast iron pot. Roast-puree, vadouvan spices, cilantro, toasts.
Our server told us this was a "signature" dish. Scooping out the tasty mixture on toasts was delicious. Another savory type dish.
All of the above dishes had complex but great flavor and were beautifully crafted and presented. We eached picked favorites but all were excellent. Service was attentive and informative.
We were pretty full but split one dessert between us. Gently roasted strawberries, meyer lemon, lavender meringue, yogurt parfait. This dessert continued the trend of combining distinct individual flavors to make the finished flavor even better.
A press pot of Blue Bottle coffee and some mighty leaf tea finished the evening.
If you have not been, I highly recommend Ubuntu. The range of flavors and creativity is quite amazing. A 2007 August West chard was terrific with dinner.
We have been coming out to Sonoma and Napa for the past 10 years and our choices this visit were all excellent.
I have a couple of lunches in Sonoma and Anderson Valley to report on but for now I need to catch up on things here at home :)
I'm really, really impressed with the way the cuisine at Ubuntu has been evolving. On my first visit nearly two years ago, I thought the food was good, but nothing particularly innovative (with the exception of the goat cheese/nori/radish salad). I can't remember much about my second meal there, other than the fact that my meat-loving brother declared it one of the best meals he'd ever had. Yesterday, I took the plunge and brought my parents, who raised us with at least 4 types of animal protein on the table every dinner, and who always shooed us away from meatless selections at restaurants because "if there's no meat, there's no value" (rough translation from Chinese, heh).
By the time they tasted their first lavender almond, they were swooning. The fried chickpea clusters were fantastic - I prefer these to the fried sunchoke version - and the romesco's since smoothed out to a more appealing texture.
The three of us ordered the entire savory menu - everything was really good, but the standouts were:
Sweet onion marmalade donut and burrata, fried shallots - first of all, this was easily the best burrata I've ever had. It was unbelievably sweet, and went beautifully with the sharp vinegary tang of the onion marmalade. The donut, while tasty and technically very cool, was almost an afterthought for me.
Squash soup - this was served as three quenelles at the bottom of the bowl - whipped coconut miilk, squash puree, and a bit of intensely flavored "condiment" - I think the base was minced caramelized shallot or onion, don't know what else went into it, but it was stunning - and a drizzle of mint/cilantro oil. The soup was poured in tableside. I loved the way every bite was different from the last. Unfortunately, like rahir, I had some timing issues - this soup came while I was still enjoying the donut and burrata, and with two complex dishes best enjoyed hot on the table, I think I rushed through the rest of my burrata to get to the soup.
Potatoes and sauerkraut with horseradish fondue - I think the server also mentioned pecorino and truffle in the fondue as well. Lady apple is listed as an ingredient, but I can't remember where that came in. Really densely complex and satisfying, especially on a cold, rainy winter day.
Mixed root vegetables with braised greens in a frothy coffee jus with mustard, cocoa nibs, and cardamom - a brilliant combination of earthy and sharp, rustic and new-wave.
Grits with goat milk whey, smoked trumpet bacon, egg - I loved the trumpet mushroom "bacon" - dehydrated, paper thin slices that were surprisingly sweet and meaty - but the lowly grits were the star. They were incredibly buttery, with the brightest corn flavor I've ever had from either grits or polenta.
We also enjoyed the bean stew, the sunflower seed risotto, the salad of broccoli and cauliflower (I was especially impressed with the may miso mimicked anchovy in this dish), and the beet salad. Several dishes featured quenelles of highly seasoned, minced vegetables as a condiment - something I don't remember seeing before (and that I liked enough that I may try experimenting with the concept in my own cooking).
Service was friendly and enthusiastic as always, although I don't think it was totally necessary to check in with us quite so many times to make sure everything was ok.
Jeremy Fox was heavily quoted in this excellent piece: http://www.chow.com/stories/12009 (note to Chow editors - please, more pieces like this, and less fluff!), and no wonder - he has to be a leading innovator in vegetable cooking right now. I love that there were so many new things that I hadn't seen or tasted before (either at Ubuntu or at other restaurants). The meal I had yesterday was exactly what I've been hoping to see from Ubuntu - ultra-creative, innovative cooking, beautiful plating worthy of a 4-star restaurant, and deeply satisfying flavors.
Ubuntu Restaurant & Yoga Studio
1140 Main Street, Napa, CA 94558
I thought a couple of times during my meal that a vegetarian chef might not have thought of some of the unexpected touches Fox came up with to add depth of flavor and umami without meat. That is, Fox's palate and standards are shaped by being an omnivore, so he knows when a dish is a little flat or boring compared with what it would be if he could throw in some broth, bacon, anchovies, or nam pla.
Finally made it to Ubuntu on impulse, after the hour-plus cheese tasting at Raymond vegetables were very appealing.
Pretty place, elegant, but very casual. Servers in Ubuntu T-shirts, nobody was very dressed up and some customers were dressed way down. No reservation but at quarter to six on Sunday only a few tables were occupied and it never got more than maybe half full.
The almonds were good, had I think exactly as much lavender as they could without becoming too perfumy. Portion would easily have served eight, we brought most home.
Castelvetrano olives, lovely but couldn't taste what difference the carrot top pesto made, maybe it just enhances their usual fresh and fruity qualities. Portion was about right for four.
Chickpea fries with romesco, oh my god. I'm glad there were only two of us.
Carta da musica, this was fun and delicious though a bit hard to eat. I can see its family resemblance to Manresa's "Into the garden ..." but it's really not very similar--less complex and more like a normal salad. The "dirt" was reportedly dehydrated beets.
Potatoes roasted in hay, couldn't tell what effect the hay had. Nice texture. I don't remember much else about it.
Sunflower seed "risotto" with sunchoke puree, this was very good and really unique.
The avocado parfait was amazing. The parfait itself was salty and not at all sweet, the only sweetness was in some little meringue kisses. I think there was also a sauce or cream or something.
The receipt also shows mushroom and turnip dishes and a sweet potato dessert, I remember they were good but don't remember the preparation and they're not on either of the online sample menus. Something had Blue Bottle coffee in the sauce and I remember thinking it was a brilliant touch. During the meal I remember thinking that one (and only one) of the dishes could have been improved with a bit of demi-glace or some other meaty element, but by the end I couldn't remember which it was.
Total for two before tax and tip was $112, remarkably reasonable for the quality. We were full but not unpleasantly so the way we would have been from a meal of similar size with lots of meat.
The wines were also reasonable--great stuff for $9-10 a glass.
Most other restaurants could take a service lesson from Ubuntu, service was stellar but friendly and unobtrusive.
Ubuntu Restaurant & Yoga Studio
1140 Main Street, Napa, CA 94558
On a spur of the moment thing, I made a reservation the same day for dinner last Friday (New Year's Day).
We arrived on time and were told to wait at the bar for our table (which was pointed out at near the front window). Lo and behold, when seated, we were placed at a different table, one at the back for four situated just steps away from the hostess' stand; our plates and tableware were at the two chairs facing her and not towards the rest of the room, which made for slight awkwardness (we could hear everything she was saying to the staff and I'm sure she could hear our conversations through dinner...).
Having been to Ubuntu before, we decided to share four savory items plus desserts. Unfortunately, the online menu hasn't been updated, so I'll try to recount as best as possible.
Three of our dishes came out within minutes of each other, which made pacing a problem, considering they were fairly warm and all ready to eat. These included a squash soup with quince paste (soffrito?), a persimmon "donut" (persimmon puree fried in a crunchy dough) with burrata and jam (tomato?), and a rancho gordo bean stew with sage and toast. The squash soup was very light, with little cubes of squash and some greens, but it wasn't as flavored as I expected. The donut and burrata were nice, although very hard to share b/c once you cut into the donut, the inner sauce quickly oozed out. I'm not a huge bean person, but the stew was heaven. Its heartiness felt just right on the first night of the year, and nicely combated my dimming thoughts of the hour-plus drive home in the rain and looming fog.
We had about a ten-minute wait for our last savory dish, which was fine with us. But we did have multiple servers stop by our table to clean up, which felt musical chairs-like. But when our sunflower seeds, risotto-style, arrived, everything else just fell to the wayside. I've only had ever had rice as risotto, but this was, well, for lack of a better word, cool. The base of sunflower seeds was paired with sunchoke puree (or something like that) along with a homemade creme fraiche (or sour cream???). I think it also had a jam, too. This dish played on earthy and rustic tones, and was creamy without losing flavor or consistency; if I could have, I think I would have lapped the plate. Er, bowl. Well, it was a half plate, half bowl thing. That I would have lapped at all night long.
Desserts were hit-or-miss. I've had the cheesecake before, and this one was a sour cherry one that felt way too bland and sour and not enough sweet or tangy. The shot of hot chocolate with banana cream and a side of spongy, light, homemade doughnuts, though, was a much better ending to a night of overall great food.
Overall, the food was quite good, with some definite highs and a low or two. But the service left me perplexed, not for rudeness, per se, but for a continual sense of unease or rushed feeling.
Hubby and I ate there the day after Christmas, and had some of the best service I've experienced anywhere in quite a while. We were seated promptly by the window at a well-spaced table (important to ask for there; some of the two tops by the wall can be very close together). Perfect pacing, an a great, attentive server who was really in tune with what we wanted, didn't feel rushed at all. However, we did dine early (when they opened at 5:30), so that could have made a difference. Still, pacing and serviced remained strong the entire time we were there, and the place was hopping by the time we left.
One thing I noticed this visit (my third) was that despite the high ceilings, the noise level stayed at reasonable levels all evening, which will help convince hubby that Ubuntu deserves a fourth visit.
Not that he will need convincing. Hubby, who is notorious for hating restaurants (doesn't like being served, doesn't like formality, hates noise and crowds, but he does likes to eat, ) walked out declaring that he had a wonderful time and that Ubuntu was his new favorite restaurant!
Anyway, dishes we shared included:
olives, advertised as a 'snack' to start, and I wish I remembered the type, but a very generous portion (more than just a 'snack') of perfect, large, green lovely olives. Listed on the menu as castelvetrano olives, that sounds right but I am not sure.
chickpea fries: crunchy, delicious
fried romanesco: on special that evening, perfectly done.
Oca marinated in local citrus and olive oil with 'fuyu’ PERSIMMON, avocado, greenhouse CILANTRO, macadamia: neither one of us had heard of oca (grown in their garden); taste is similar to a cross between a potato and a radish. Anyway, this salad was a hit of beatiful colors, flavors and textures.
four rare beets, roasted in salt, spice, & farm egg whites with a marmalade of the stems and greens, pecan, horseradish fondue: beets and horseradish so obviously go together, yet this was anything but cliched. I was licking my plate; well, not quite, but I did surepticiously wipe up some sauce with my finger :-).
some roasted carrots: true baby carrots, guess I was in the mood for root vegetables, though I did debate about the risotto you mention. This was the only dish that didn't wow me (which is probably why I can't remember what else was in the dish), and I wish my root vegie craving hadn't won over my curiousity about how sunflower seeds would be as a risotto. Hubby liked it though.
The same bean dish you mention, with the addition of a slow cooked egg on top. Wow. Server told us it takes three days to prepare for the flavors to meld, and that is easy to believe. Hubby, who loves beans, was in heaven (and I took the egg on top since that's been another recent craving.) Delicious, warming, comforting, yet complex. Perfect for a rainy day.
At this point we were fairly full but I managed the hot chocolate and donuts (sans the banana cream since I loathe bananas, but they were happy to substitute regular rich cream) while hubby had a port.
We went back to Ubuntu to sample the late summer menu. While we preferred the menu from April the flavors and creativity this visit was equally good.
Three of us shared the following.
Two "snacks" ale battered chickpeas and Padrons with lime and smoked salt. Both very good, especially the chickpeas.
Carta da Musica with the entire summer garden, lightly dressed round pond olive oil-sea salt, truffled pecorino.
Kohlrabi and Black Fif Ravioli, brown butter emulsion, sage, macadamia, bitter greens.
Zucchini Bread, Roast Squashes and Homemade Goat Ricotta piquillo pepper, olive caramel, basil "sylvetta" arugula.
"Polka" Corn and "Poblano" Pepper Veloute, poached farm egg, three amaranths, Deanie's brioche
Homemade Gnocchetti In a Smokey Tomato Broth, confit tomato, spinach, Midnight Moon.
Organic Grits from Arbuckle finished with "polka" corn Pudding, smoked royal trumpet "bacon", purslane green tomato jam.
All of the above were excellent, the standouts being the Organic Grits and Corn and Pepper Veloute.
For dessert we shared two desserts. Vanilla Bean Cheesecake in a jar with dark fall fruits, teeccino nut crumble.
Brioche Pain Perdu with Blackberries, froh hollow peaches and honey ice cream, kettle corn.
Both were enjoyed with some coffee.
A lot of creativity coming from this kitchen. Would visit often if we lived in the area.
I was there Friday night and hope to post a full report soon, but just wanted to add that we had the pea dish and it was wonderful. Will be a top taste of the year for me, I am fairly certain. Hubby is still raving about it!
I loved the idea of roasted strawberries but steered away from the dessert you had because of the lavender. I am generally of the opinion that lavender doesn't belong in food. Was it a pronounced flavor in the dish?
Not sure what you mean by "vintage chard". August West chardonnay and pinot noir are excellent representatives of Ca. http://www.augustwestwine.com/augustw...
In fact had an great 2006 August West Graham Family pinot with an awesome seafood pizza (shrimp, scallops, calamari) tonight but you would need to be in NJ to enjoy the pizza. Nothing like it out in Ca :)