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Aug 24, 2009 01:13 PM

ubuntu - great as reported

I've been reading here on CH for at least a year or two about the excellence of Ubuntu, and finally had a meal slot available in that area. Reservations were available on OpenTable a few days before, and there were communal table slots clearly available for walk-ins.

Earlier in the day, I talked to a gentleman who said he dines at Ubuntu every few months, that he loves, them, but they might have "lost their edge" (not slipping, not downhill, just "lost the edge"). In particular, he mentioned the signature cauliflower dish, and recommended I send it back if burnt. I can only say if what I had was "edgeless", the previous state must have been rapturous.

We arrived at 8 and took on the tasting menu. 7 courses, 3 amuse, but frankly I don't remember how many of what, and couldn't tell the courses from the amuse.

Some of the dishes were imperfect. In particular, there was a avocado paired with a german Sauterne-like wine supposedly to simulate a fois gras preparation which wasn't over the top enough to count as humor, and didn't seem like fois gras enough to be non-humous. The first dish, which was melon and some other things ("caviar" must have been a non-fish caviar substance) in a coconut/lemongrass soup broth was delightful, but the soup part overwhelmed the small slivers of melon - the two bites with the melon were exceptional.

There were, however, two dishes that were best ever, astonishing, dishes. One involved Shiso Ice. I am a massive fan of Shiso leaf, and at the core of this very complicated dish with huckleberries underneath - amazing. The second dish involved the BeetBerries, where the presentation included beets, a beetberry sauce, and a foot long sprig of beetberries straight from their garden placed between us for grazing by hand. BeetBerries are some kind of lost cousin of spinach which fruit if left to their own devices. The fruit is closest to raspberries, but not really close to anything. It's just a beetberry. There was a radish dish that probably included a radish pod - some pod like thing about 5mm wide. The final desert was a carrot cake bite with the world's smallest thread of carrot on top - candied - although it was about the size of a saffron thread.

In general, that was the rule of the day: a massive complexity of ingredients, astonishing execution. Fruits and vegetables that I had never heard of. Dishes that, if just eaten would be super-tasty but when pulled apart and thought of from a technical or semantic level, became more interesting. Interestingly, there was no cauliflower - because the chef has realized not to dwell on the old hits, or just more interesting dishes available that evening? Certainly not serving califlower out of season, as my informant suggested.

When dealing with that number of dishes, the amount of "misfires" becomes trivial. The dishes that "didn't work" were still tasty, just not Gorgeous and Thoughtful.

The wine pairings were good. Starting was actually a Ginjo Sake with a crisper nose than I've smelled in a while. There was a Pommard in the middle somewhere, some kind of light rustic italian red that tasted blocky by itself but was exactly correct for the paired dish. Desert was a bit of a misfire, with a fizzy italian fruity wine paired with some serious chocolate. The server noticed that we didn't drink hardly any, and repaired with something like a Madiera, which we thought was more suitable - although the light italian thing paired with the petit fours properly; a real chalenge to pair between the dish and (what was essentially) an amuse.

Price: about $100 each for the tasting menu. About $30 for the pairings (which they allowed just one for our table of two - of course my dining partner had a small sip of each, no complaints from staff, and the occasional top-up when the food faltered). Out the door $150/pp, which I considered fair.

This was the first tasting menu where I've not felt overwhelmed by the end. TFL I knew I was "toast" somewhere before the last few courses. Not so at ubuntu. The dishes are complex, but the lack of all that fat keeps it light and interesting, and kept me in the game, appreciating what was coming next.

I would complain just a little about the combination of service and setting. The restaurant is casual / smart, gorgeous wood tables with no cloth, beautiful room. Everyone around us was getting individual dishes. The spacing between tables was about 2 feet. The couple next to us as we sat down appeared to be on the Worst Date Ever, which wouldn't have been a problem if they were a foot further away. Courses lagged and accelerated a few times. The server was engaging and knowledgeable, though, kept us laughing.

Here are my suggestions for the restaurant:

* People enjoying the tasting menu are looking for (and paying for) a different category of experience. You don't want to create the haves and have nots, but seating us closer to the kitchen (so the server and staff didn't have to walk so far), and in a more roomy environment, would have been suitable. Since we had a 8pm reservation and ate until 11, seating us closer to the kitchen would have been better as the restaurant emptied out. [And, to anyone making a reservation, tell them you intend the tasting menu, maybe they would naturally seat you differently - honestly, I didn't know I wanted the tasting menu until I scanned the menu ]

* For god's sake, print out the tasting menu so people can take it home. The dishes are fiendishly complex, the noise level rose and fell a few times, some of the ingredients I had never heard of (and I'm pretty well read). If you went through that much trouble to *make* the dishes, you can print out a sheet with the menu on it.

* I would have enjoyed if the chef came out or something. It was the end of the night, I doubt he or she was in the middle of 3 other things.

Let me point out something I don't remember from the other reviews. This isn't just a tasting menu restaurant, or even primarily a tasting menu restaurant. It's also just a plain, good a la carte place. On a saturday night, in summer, they were fully geared up to take on the world's best in a tasting menu. On the regular menu I think you'd spend a bit but not a huge amount, if you're careful, and have an extraordinary meal. None of the dishes on the a la carte menu showed up on the tasting menu, but see previous regarding a print of the menu.

Finally, an obligatory note about the vegitarian aspect of the restaurant. I had spent the day expending a few thousand calories bicycling. I had scoped out where Taylor's Refresher was (and even a Jack in the Box) because my muscles were screaming for fuel and I wanted an option. On walking out, I didn't think about any of that - I, and my body, was fully satisfied. There is a sense it's not a vegitarian restaurant - it's a restaurant without meat.

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  1. Nice report. I don't think of Ubuntu as a tasting menu place. However, I had the tasting menu not too long after they opened and they hadn't really worked things out. At that time it was mainly stuff pulled from the a la carte menu. I think someone mentioned recently that cauliflower isn't really in season yet.

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

    1 Reply
    1. re: rworange

      My heart was set on the tasting menu after less than a minute of seeing the menu, so there may have been duplications. Super great meal, regardless - I wish I could remember a little more chapter and verse of the dishes, I'm going to try to sit down and write it out as best as I can remember.

    2. Wow, beetberry's a new one on me. It's more closely related to lambsquarter and quinoa.

      1 Reply
      1. re: Robert Lauriston

        Lambsquarter is new on me.

        I think it was the beetberry dish that had beets on a roasted quinoa bed. The roasted quinoa dish had a bed of something entirely different next to it, slightly spinach-like, but we had no idea what that was.

        Other dishes were a padron pepper / micro bell pepper amuse - I got a "hot" one - the bell peppers were about an inch across. The prep was unusual, instead of a straight roast, there was a fair amount of oil, somewhat sesame oriented and asian, which could have been considered "wrong" -but I loved. It somehow took me home to eating a philly style italian sub, but turned around in three ways at once. The padrons might have been on the main menu.

        One of the amuses was small heirloom radish-lets, some raw some cooked, with specks of mustard-based (sharp clean mustard more like horseradish) sauce and a black sea salt served on a small rough slab of shale. It was hard to eat because getting the right amount of mustard on these little micro-radishes was impossible. There was a dish with a nub of sonoma goats cheese impregnated with specks of nori for greater flavor depth. I can't remember yet what was on the rest of that plate, I think maybe it was the tomato dominated dish. There was certainly one with 6 small fresh tomatoes - blanking on the variety - with a bunch of other stuff and a few tablespoons of a tomato puree swirled around the edge of the dish tableside. The very last dish was kind of a cassarole - or cassoulet - of vegitables, extraordinarily satisfying, I think there were two kinds of sweet corn in that one, and some kind of italian spice that looked like rosemary but tasted more like fresh cut green grass.

        About half the dishes I gave up on my fork. The miniscule size of these ingrediants caused the fork to look like this massive, blunt object. Not suitable. Surgical tweezers - maybe, and I mean that in a good way. Some of the radishes, and some of the beets, were smaller than a single tine - often I liked taking one mixed-up mouthful, then picking apart ingrediant by ingrediant to see how everything fit together. So I'd just reach down and pluck out the bits I wanted.

        I'm remembering a bunch of nastursiums near the beginning. And radish blossoms at one point - a small white flower about 3mm across with about 12 points - just two on each plate, 12oclock and 9oclock.

        The entire meal was simply epic.

        I just wish I could read the menu.

      2. "In general, that was the rule of the day: a massive complexity of ingredients, astonishing execution. " is a very nice summation of the experience. When I was there, a tasting menu was either not offered, or you had to ask for it. I think that's the way to go. As for the cauliflower, I read elsewhere that it is out of season.

        1 Reply
        1. re: Reignking

          The tasting menu wasn't highlighed on the menu. I remember it being its own item, near the bottom, and said something understated like "Garden Choice - the chef's tasting menu of items from our garden". I also would entirely believe it's a limited thing, depending on whether they're up for it.

          Most restaurants that do tasting menus have a few "classics" they put out almost every day, like TFL's swine and pearls. After hearing that Ubuntu had similar "classic dishes", I was very glad they had left out a dish that was out of season - some joints compromise in that situation.

        2. I don't think cauliflower is ever out of season in the Bay Area. I saw big, beautiful heads at the farmers market today. The chef likely just prefers to focus on summer crops with short seasons.

          10 Replies
          1. re: Robert Lauriston

            I disagree -- I've had two different farmers at the Fillmore Farmer's Market tell me that cauliflower is out of season. Another had it, but it was very brown and spotted.

            1. re: CarrieWas218

              True for those farmers, I'm sure. It's out of season in hot areas, but in cool areas along the coast I believe it grows all year. The heads I saw today at were perfect.

            2. re: Robert Lauriston

              Cauliflower is not in season when the weather is hot.

              1. re: pikawicca

                The seasonal vegetable chart for SoCal shows cauliflower all year long. What is here now, and I have seen a lot of it, may not be local, although there have been some lovely big heads at Monterey Market.

                1. re: pikawicca

                  Obviously it hasn't been hot at Swanton Berry Farm.

                  1. re: Robert Lauriston

                    Right, I can see it in the fields in the Salinas Valley. Local farmers from Tomales Bay and Petaluma, cool growing regions, were selling it at the Petaluma farmers market on Saturday. The brown and spottiness (and loose clusters) can be related to excess heat, and also a lack of care in "blanching" the flower heads in the field to keep them snowy white.

                  2. re: pikawicca

                    Good thing the weather is never hot enough in much of the Bay Area for cauliflower to go out of season.

                    1. re: JasmineG

                      We went on Friday night and had an excellent meal again. We were looking forward to getting the tasting menu because the previous time we went to Ubuntu we were with friends who wanted the regular menu. Sadly this time they did not have the tasting menu any more. It was a great meal regardless and the highlight was the delicious garden fritters.

                      1. re: Ridge

                        I'm sorry you didn't get the tasting menu. Did they say whether the tasting menu was gone forever, or a saturday thing, or what?

                        1. re: bbulkow

                          I believe the chef is working on making the tasting menu fairly consistent. Unsure when it will happen 100%, but it is in the works.