Ubuntu (Napa, CA) – Vegetables not Vegetarian

“We’re not offering a philosophy of “no meat”, rather, we are celebrating what comes from the gardens, what shows up at the door, and our relationships with farms in Napa.”
– Jeremy Fox on Ubuntu’s web site

I’ve written before that the Bay Area dining scene can be frustrating. Everyone pays homage to our better-than-average ingredients, mostly vegetable, but when was the last time you had a vegetable dish that wasn’t a salad? Can you recall when a vegetable dish really left an impact? If you read A Few Reservations and her quest for vegetarian fare, it’s disheartening to read how vegetables are still an afterthought in too many restaurants. How can chefs and restaurants make a claim to the ingredients without exploring them to their limits?

Ubuntu (Napa) - Autumn Tart Float
Autumn Tart Float

Julot-les-pinceaux, on his trip to the Bay Area, posed a great challenge to me – he wanted to have lunch, or dinner, at some place uniquely California; specifically, the Bay Area. Manresa, the easy choice, was already on his itinerary. The French Laundry can not be booked on a moment’s notice. Quince, Bay Area in spirit, was booked. My Coi review didn’t excite him and Aqua, with its hodge-podge of unseasonal ingredients and non-local fare, defied his culinary sensibilities. Where were we to eat?

Ubuntu (Napa) - Broccoli with Pine Nut Pudding
Broccoli with Pine Nuts and Pine Nut Pudding

And then it dawned on me – Ubuntu. All vegetables, clearly local, super seasonal; my first visit defined casual Bay Area dining. Meat? I hardly missed it. The chef, Jeremy Fox, was the initial attraction thanks to his stint as the sous chef at Manresa. After my first meal, that was an afterthought – the food spoke on its own terms. A second meal last week convinced me the first was no fluke. This is one of the best restaurants in the area. And what did this third meal, a lunch, bring? More exemplary dishes.

Ubuntu (Napa) - Beet and Pear salad
Marinated Beets and Asian Pears, Cowgirl Mt Ram

This is a star in the making. The San Francisco Chronicle gave it 3.5 stars after opening – a remarkable feat. As the restaurant develops, refines its ambitions, and creates an even stronger voice, you will see that score increase to the maximum four. Michelin stars? One for sure without question. Chuck’s assessment? One of the top 10, if not 5, Bay Area restaurants.

Ubuntu (Napa) - BBQ Brussel Sprouts with Anson Mills Grits
Anson Mills Grits, Hickory-smoked BBQ brussels sprouts, & Celery root salad

The menus change often, the dishes below often change on subsequent menus, in keeping with the seasonality. Below is a reflection of a meal you might eat. A few words for eating at Ubuntu – 1) Order the cauliflower and BBQ brussels sprouts if this is your first time (and they are available); 2) The dishes are perfect for sharing between two people – order five or six; and 3) Order vegetables you may not like – Ubuntu may change your ideas about them.

Cauliflower - Many Ways
Cauliflower in Hot Pot, Roasted/Pureed/Raw, Vadouvan Spice

The Best Dishes

Matsutake + Sesame Tofu, Natural broth w/ white soy, & D’Avignon radish
A wonderful mix of textures & tastes – the SF Chronicle used the right word for the tofu – sensuous. I would’ve preferred more broth but that’s nit-picking. It reminded me of an Urasawa or Manresa dish. Hopefully this dish can stay on the menu w/ appropriate seasonal variations as Matsutake season has passed.

Cauliflower in Hot Pot, Roasted/Pureed/Raw, Vadouvan Spice
An impressive dish that showcased the different textures of cauliflower. Vadouvan is the spicing of the gods. This dish has been described differently on each trip – sometimes Cauliflower Three Ways; others Four Ways. Regardless, it’s a signature dish and must-order while cauliflower is in season.

Broccoli with Pine Nuts and Pine Nut Pudding
This dish is responsible for the third recommendation above – a childhood of eating frozen broccoli has left parts of me scarred. My first meal held so much promise that I suggested this dish, my fingers crossed the entire time. In some ways, the dish had the same etherealness as the Matsutake dish thanks to the sweet, but slightly tart, red pepper consomme. The pine nut pudding, very small dabs sitting under the broccoli, also had a slightly sweet quality that lifted the dish even further. A must-order while broccoli is in season.

Marinated Beets and Asian Pears, Cowgirl Mt Tam, Pear/Vanilla Puree
And thanks to rule three, established with the dish above, the magic of the restaurant was revealed to me. I had suspected it, possibly tasted it, but this dish had it. It was crisp and tangy on a sunny cool autumn day. But beets, and especially asian pears, are not my favorite food items – this is a dish I would have never ordered. The chef sent it out after I gave him carte blanche with a few items. The beets exploded with flavor, a vinegary tang, complemented by the sharp (blue?) cheese. The menu reads Cowgirl Mt Tam but this dish had a much sharper cheese, and it worked wonders. The pears, and its puree, provided the right balance.

The Very Good

Anson Mills Grits, Hickory-smoked BBQ brussels sprouts, & Celery root salad
The coarse grits were just as good as my favorites at Momofuku and the BBQ brussels sprouts imparted a nice smoky flavor to the whole dish. This is a highly recommended dish but I’ve placed it under Very Good because of the inconsistent grits. They were perfect on my first visit but slightly pasty on subsequent visits.

Artichoke Heart salad
By itself, a relatively simple salad of artichoke hearts with a pesto-like sauce of sliced olives. This dish doesn’t define the heights of the restaurant but it encapsulates its philosophy of freshness.

Vanilla Bean Cheesecake in a Jar, Sour cherries, & Pine Nut Sable
A contradiction of a dessert – very light, nearly whipped in texture, but extremely rich. There’s a strong but not overwhelming vanilla flavor that is sufficiently balanced by the sour cherries. This dessert is too strong for me but one bite is heavenly.

Tart Autumn Fruit Float – Jasmine flower soda, Cranberry sorbet, pomengranate & citrus
For me, a great end to a meal. Very tart with nary a bit of sweetness, head the warning of the title. The texture interplay between the sorbet, fruits, and pomengranate was very satisfying.

The OK

Wild Nettle Pizza, Bellwether Ricotta, & Fried Egg
Wild Mushroom Pizza, Bellwether Crescenza, and Puree of the trimmings
Each was a good pizza but the least impressive of the dishes in their respective meals. The crust is bubbled and burnt on the edges but the bottom crust might be too doughy. The pizza is good filler if you’re still hungry but I’d recommend ordering the other dishes instead.

It’s a must-visit restaurant in the Napa area at a very reasonable price point ($100 for 2.) It is exciting because, like Manresa, it promises to change our views on the quality of Bay Area vegetables. To feature and celebrate vegetables, instead of relegating them to side dish duty.

- chuck

Official Site: http://www.ubuntunapa.com/

Other Reviews:

  • http://www.alifewortheating.com alifewortheating

    Great review, Chuck. Based on my first visit, I couldn’t agree more with your assertion that it is “One of the top 10, if not 5, Bay Area restaurants.” I plan to return soon. All reports seem to suggest that it just keeps getting better and better.

  • http://www.jenniferjeffrey.typepad.com Jennifer Jeffrey

    Thanks for listing to my post, Chuck. It sounds like you’ve had some amazing meals there lately, and I’m feeling quite envious. It’s been on my Must Return list for a while, and now I’ve really got to put it on the calendar.

  • Scott

    Looks great. Wish I’d known of this place when I was looking for good vegetarian options on a recent trip to the Bay Area.

  • Scott Solomon

    This place does look great. Chuck, what’s it like to have that much blogging power concentrated at one table in one restaurant? The atmosphere must be electrifying!!!

  • http://afewreservations.com Jenn

    Amen to that, Chuck. I can’t wait to go back!

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  • http://veggiemonologues.blogspot.com VnV

    Thanks for leaving us a comment and leading us to your site. We look forward to reading the reviews of your favorite restaurant and maybe trying some of them in the bay area. Manresa is definitely one on our list!

  • Zweito

    Sounds like a worldly eater. How come Coi of SF not included? Sleazy neighborhood, distinguished vegetables – the only place reminds me Micheal Bras at this side of hemisphere.

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