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Ubuntu Napa

q
qli Mar 9, 2011 01:19 PM

At the beginning of 2010, the vegetarians and foodies in the Bay Area panicked when the news spread that the "king of vegetables" Jeremy Fox was about to leave the yoga-studio annex restaurant Ubuntu. It seemed that the magic in Napa was gone. But happily, life is always full of surprises and Fox's continuator Aaron London, was under a lot of pressure when taking over this kitchen.
Despite all of the pressure, it seems as if he manages to live up to the high expectations. Perhaps it has to do with the owner of Ubuntu, Sandy Lawrence. She wanted to start a restaurant with a special concept, the concept of harmony between the land and the people who work that land. In this light it is no surprise that the name Ubuntu means "humanity toward others" in the Zulu language. Therefore, she works intensively with local artisans (like cheese makers) and gardeners, supplying her with the best vegetables of the region. Ubuntu is a joyful restaurant with a stylish atmosphere. Upon entering the building, it is hard to not see the large oven as centerpiece. Ceramic sculptures decorate the inside, whose centre-piece is a giant wooden communal table. But the most interesting aspect by far is the yoga-studio located above the kitchen. How many fine-dining restaurants in the world have a yoga studio above the dining room?
Unlike most of the dishes, the melon gazpacho is easy digestible and stands out in terms of elegance. The quality of the melon is superb, having a great firm structure and being full of flavor. The acidity of the gazpacho is highly complex and well-dosed, making this a very refined dish. A salad of (unripe) tomatoes is reminds you of an iconic Alain Passard dish. The tomatoes are concentrated in taste and seem to burst with flavor. Their acidity is balanced beautifully by a creamy dill sauce, which adds a little something special to the dish. A delicious and intelligent dish, which is again in perfect balance, and harmony if one links it to the yoga studio. The restaurant works with local artisanal cheese makers, which is shown by a steamed bun stuffed with Burrata. The bun is of a perfect structure and the creamy Burrata cheese is very delicate. In combination with the figs, the flavors are lifted up nicely, making this is an interesting composition of different textures and flavours.
It is easy to continue with the long list of dishes that can be eaten here. Be it a squash dish, or one of the several dishes based on beans or even a dish composed with potatoes, everything is delicious and intellectually interesting. Chef Aaron London has the privilege to work with the best vegetables and cooks very confidently with them. He is showing technique skills as all his dishes are seasoned perfectly. The price of experiencing this wonderful kitchen is surprisingly cheap (around $50 per menu) making this restaurant very enjoyable and relaxing to visit. Ubuntu might be the States' leading vegetable-based restaurant.

Hopefully you think this review is helpfull. For pictures you can take a look at qliweb.com

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

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  1. wolfe RE: qli Mar 9, 2011 01:56 PM

    "Unlike most of the dishes, the melon gazpacho is easy digestible"
    This would lead one to assume that most of the dishes were not easily digestible which would trouble me.

    1. Robert Lauriston RE: qli Mar 9, 2011 02:03 PM

      When did you eat there? Melons and figs are way out of season, even green tomatoes would be surprising this early.

      4 Replies
      1. re: Robert Lauriston
        CarrieWas218 RE: Robert Lauriston Mar 9, 2011 06:25 PM

        Concur - I have a feeling this review is woefully out-of-date; the general consensus is that while Aaron is fairly talented, he is utilizing well-established Fox recipes without creating anything very new.

        Although I have gone back for dessert and Carl Swanson is not doing a bad job realizing new and different desserts than what Deanie Hickox <formerly Fox> used to accomplish.

        1. re: Robert Lauriston
          q
          qli RE: Robert Lauriston Mar 10, 2011 06:35 AM

          I ate there in September so you're right. @Concur You're probably right about Aaron but still his technical skills seems to be at the same level of Jeremy. What do you think about his technical skills?

          1. re: qli
            CarrieWas218 RE: qli Mar 10, 2011 07:54 AM

            One can have tremendous technical skill without being innovative. Aaron is doing fine cooking the recipes that Jeremy developed but now that a whole year has passed and he is being presented with a new crop of vegetables, the old recipes are showing up.

            What made Ubuntu so exceptional was the innovation but I can see that this would only be witnessed by those of us that made multiple, return visits. A one-off visit will be just as suitably impressed if they have never tasted the food before, but it lacks the finesse and balance that Jeremy created.

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

            1. re: CarrieWas218
              josquared RE: CarrieWas218 Mar 10, 2011 08:13 AM

              Maybe that's where I fall - I made my first visit with my GF well after Jeremy had left and we found the tastes "suitably impressive", to borrow Carrie's phraseology. But that finesse and balance mentioned I guess will have to remain an unknown quantity for the both of us.

              The tastes we did experience weren't suitably impressive enough to make a return visit anytime soon, though admittedly that's more due to wanting to try other places in that general price range in the Bay Area than anything else.

        2. JasmineG RE: qli Oct 4, 2011 04:33 PM

          This doesn't sound like good news: http://sanfrancisco.grubstreet.com/20... Ubuntu closing for 4 (ish) months.

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

          4 Replies
          1. re: JasmineG
            CarrieWas218 RE: JasmineG Oct 4, 2011 09:36 PM

            Wow - that is surprising. Ate an extensive meal there on Sunday and was very impressed. Aaron is stepping up his game and perhaps the winter will give him the opportunity to sharpen his skills.

            Honestly, I remember Jeremy complaining how hard it was to create an interesting menu during the winter months because the available produce was much less abundant than all the other seasons. Considering that and the lower traffic rate of tourists in downtown during winter does not make this a necessarily bad business decision.

            I think their biggest struggle will be to regain staff when they reopen and reclaim momentum.

            1. re: CarrieWas218
              r
              Rosedale RE: CarrieWas218 Oct 5, 2011 08:08 PM

              That's a bummer. Just ate there last week and it was fantastic.

              1. re: Rosedale
                r
                radman123 RE: Rosedale Oct 6, 2011 03:59 PM

                Ate there on Sunday (2nd visit) and it was a bit dissapointing compared to my visit a few years ago. Unnecessarily expesnive for lunch...with some dishes a bit awkward (my wife was really dissapointed)

                1. re: radman123
                  c
                  Cicciabella RE: radman123 Nov 7, 2011 11:09 AM

                  Had dinner at Ubuntu with 3 vegan/vegetarian friends and none of us will go back. (This was my 4th time, though first back since Jeremy Fox left. One of the others had been 2x before, so we all knew that it is expensive.) Most of the food was overly complicated, fussy, and unnecessarily rich. The thai curry "soup" dish had a pool of green finishing oil floating on it, which did not add anything but fat to an already oily dish. Next course of turnips and figs was also heavy handed with oil. The sweet potato "pudding" had so many elements that none stood out, and was so cloyingly sweet with all the elements together that only a couple spoons was worth eating.

                  Though the service was efficient, the background music was overbearing and intrusive. One of our party requested something quieter so we could talk and was callously told that there was nothing to be done, and that it was part of the "vibe". We were all distracted by a loud, pounding beat for the entire evening. It was a further "disconnect" and made the experience more of an "assault." At least half of the diners were not "young hipsters" so the management is not paying attention to the comfort of many of their paying clientele.

                  None of us will ever go back. Too bad there are so few places to eat interesting meatless food.

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

          2. p
            pizzagal RE: qli Nov 22, 2011 10:51 AM

            Let me preface this by saying that I generally reserve my negative feelings about a restaurant and do not feel the urge to make them public; the business is just too hard to have to contend with a barrage of frequently uninformed opinions from self-appointed foodies. HOWEVER: the exception is when a restaurant obviously holds itself in high esteem and displays a certain haughtiness that ends up being wholly undeserved. I think you can see where I am going with this.
            A friend of mine was dying to bring my husband and I to Ubuntu as she had eaten there twice and thought I, being vegetarian, would love it. Here's the recap:
            We arrived at 8:15 PM on a Friday, about three weeks ago. We were the last reservation for the night. The host neglected to greet us and never reappeared, which is usually a harbinger of a certain overriding FOH attitude (not good). The room was/is great; the music was largely innappropriate (as an unedited Pandora 'station' usually ends up being). We opted for the four-course family-style menu and asked our server that the chef pick out the dishes for us. However, my friend requested that he not send out the 'snake' of microgreens, which she had had before and felt was pretty disappointing. First course was - surprise - the 'snake.' Apparently the chef felt that we were misguided in our reluctance to order this - fine. I'll go with that. However, this is what is was: about a billion tiny microgreens ( a couple days old at most) that had lots of sharp herbaceous flavors, with some verr-ry light spicing. (You cannot dress greens this small in an ordinary way as they would wither immediately.) The result was tedious and un-delicious, a spectacularly un-loveable way to present fresh greens. The 'snake' formation on the plate was sort of ridiculous. The next dish had whole roasted beets that were pickled, with kale beignets and chevre. The beignets were fine, sort of rustic in a hippie-veggie way, but the whole dish was executed so clumsily. The beets, being whole and hard, were difficult to incorporate into the dish; the pickling added an intrusive note. We were also served a chickpea stew, which was rustic and good. By this time (9:00), the food was flying out of the kitchen as we were the last table; we felt rushed. Next course was based on focaccia and had pecorino and various vegetables. It's my experience that certain dishes really give you an insight into the chef, his skill, and that of his kitchen - and this was not good. It was disjointed and ill-conceived - there was absolutely nothing that tied any of the ingredients together. The focaccia was sort of dismal and bready; the greens were stringy and too large, the cheese served no purpose...without talking about the dish, all of us simply stopped eating it. Our still-full plates were cleared away. We finished with a sort of ribollita that was similar to the chickpea stew and was also good, probably the most successful dish of the evening. Dessert: wow, another epic misstep. We were served a porter cake with porter ice cream and 'cheesy corn.' The cake was a dry-ish spice cake. Ice cream was unexceptional. 'Cheesy corn' -- ok, I get that you want to do something unconventional. But to use tough pre-popped cheese corn that is inedible? We left most of this on the plate. Flecks of the 'snake' greens were scattered over every dish, including this one. Hmm.
            Total tab before gratuity for the meal for four, which included only two glasses of wine: $280. We tipped the server generously as she was very good, a high point for the restaurant. However, my overall impression was that this restaurant with this chef is middling at best. However, these prices make 'middling' unacceptable. I feel there are serious issues here, and I wonder if the restaurant is aware of them. I would not recommend Ubuntu, sadly, since as a vegetarian I totally commend them for what they are about.

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

            3 Replies
            1. re: pizzagal
              CarrieWas218 RE: pizzagal Nov 22, 2011 11:25 AM

              They closed down last Friday evening for the winter; ostensibly, the chef is going to regroup and re-think much of what is being served and has been successful.

              I will go in the spring - after the re-open - to see what is being changed. I have hope since I think Chef Aaron London has some talent, but needs to hone some skills and center his philosophies. He was riding the tails of the uber-talented and troubled Chef Jeremy Fox and a lot of the most successful dishes on the menu were those that Fox created, but I have a feeling by next spring we will be seeing a whole new Ubuntu.

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

              1. re: CarrieWas218
                PhilD RE: CarrieWas218 Mar 5, 2012 04:55 AM

                Does anyone have an update on when it may reopen?

                1. re: PhilD
                  Robert Lauriston RE: PhilD Mar 5, 2012 08:54 AM

                  Latest word the owner has no date for reopening and will have to find a new chef:

                  http://sanfrancisco.grubstreet.com/20...

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