Ubuntu (Napa, CA) – Feed Me the Spring
Ubuntu has garnered a lot of acclaim over the past year for its different take on vegetarian fare. The food seemingly takes three tracks, presumably functions of creative desires and financial reality. One is standard, safe vegetarian fare that includes pizzas and pastas – boring 1 – but probably necessary for the business model. A second is the re-creation of meat-like dishes using vegetables. While more interesting than the first, if for no other reason than French Laundry-like irony, that take on vegetables always seemed pointless to me. The real magic, however, can be found in evocative dishes that showcase the Napa seasons. These dishes clearly have Michel Bras etched into their DNA, the countryside on a plate.
Crisp Chickpea & Flowering ROSEMARY sphere – stuffed with romesco
I have made a habit of stopping in quarterly, though blog entries are less frequent, to check out new dishes. Last year, Julot: Ze Blog and I went and he proclaimed it one of the most exciting US restaurants he had visited on his trip. I agreed but it was not in my top tier – it had hints of greatness but often settled for casual comfort-type food. Subsequent meals saw the menu changing, creeping ever so upscale with each return visit, but still fractured between comfort and haute, stuck in a minor identity crisis.
And then there was this meal, pictured below 2 – tight, cohesive, near pitch perfect – springtime Napa on a plate – a Michelin two-star meal in my book. (Ingredients in ALL CAPS come from Ubuntu’s bio-dynamic garden.)
Cool “forager’s chowder” – NETTLE ice and condimento, WOOD SORREL
A cool essence of nutty nettles – a great beginning to a sunny Friday afternoon in Napa. The ice did not dominate and null the taste buds as is common in dishes of this type; the “chowder” sufficiently blanketed the ice to prevent this.
Tiny D’Avignon Radishes – ‘goat’s leap’ hyku layered with nori, black salt
2X Shucked PEAS and GOLD SHOOTS in consomme of the shells – white chocolate, CHOCOLATE MINT, macadamia
A genuinely Michelin 3-star dish that is balanced, delicate, and sublime. The peas have a remarkable natural sweetness that is enhanced by further hints of sweetness, courtesy of the broth. From there, the salt from the macadamia kicks in before another round of creamy sweetness from the white chocolate. As the white chocolate taste rescinds, along with its slight coating, the chocolate mint has a quick bright burst at the end. This is accomplished, easily one of the best dishes in America, available for a remarkable $12 from the a la carte menu.
Six Degrees of FORONO BEETS – hazelnut “soil”, avocado, WATERCRESS, rhubarb pickle
How many ways can a beet be prepared? In one dish? The “dirt” is a favorite device of irony for chefs creating vegetable-centric dishes but this dish was not an imitation, or parody, of any other. Each bite was filled with similar, yet different and contrasting, flavors and textures of beet. In some bites, the flavors might be a touch muddied but this is a remarkable dish that could be on par with the peas with a bit more tinkering. Its appearance obviously takes nods from El Poblet or Noma, which often remind me of the strange landscapes found in Yves Tanguy paintings.
Carta da musica, Our crisp Sardinian Flatbread – topped with the SPRING GARDEN, truffled pecorino
The garden on a plate. Each bite, of mostly raw vegetables, was a medley of flavors and textures. While the pea dish was the best in composition, this dish showcases the freshness of the garden’s bounty. If one dish could change one’s view on nature and food, this might qualify. Can one can eat all of the weeds and flowers on this plate? The truffled pecorino was surprisingly aromatic and its truffle flavor lingered with each bite of the salad. A stunning dish that should not be missed in Spring.
Rosecoe’s Asparagus, Terrine of Black Trumpets & Brioche – “Virtual Egg” flavored with saffron, SYLVETTA ARUGULA, preserved lemon
“Blood Sausage” Slider – PURPLE VIENNA KOHLRABI stalk frites, violet mustard and CHARD STEM dripping sauce
This was the only mis-step of the meal and it showcases where my ideal of Ubuntu potentially differs from the restaurant’s vision. The previous dishes that celebrated vegetables and their essences are what elevate Ubuntu from “vegetarian restaurant” to a top-tier restaurant in America. Dishes, like this, meant to resemble meat dishes, bring the caliber of the food back down to “vegetarian restaurant.” The original mantra of the restaurant was “a celebration of vegetables, not vegetarianism” but the meat-facsimile dishes make the case for the latter instead of the former.
BORAGE Gnudi in Brown butter with flowering SAGE – preserved SHITAKE, meyer lemon, AGRETTI, and tender SEED PODS
Pane Frattau… An Interpretation of a Sardinian Classic – slow-scrambled egg, three FENNELS, three-day strawberry soffrito
The SPRING FLOWER POT – LAVENDAR custard, bee pollen crumble, rhubarb
The flow from savory to sweet was seamless, with the gorgeous presentation providing an exclamation point to the already easy-on-the-eyes lunch. The lavendar custard was not terribly sweet, which I appreciate, but the bee pollen crumble added sweetness and texture. The rhubard provided some acidity and counter-point to the copious amounts of lavendar greatness. The meal could not have ended on a better note – a perfect integration.
Mini Vegan CARROT cupcakes - “cream cheese” frosting, tiny candied PURPLE HAZE CARROTS
Some critics complain that the restaurant will never warrant multiple stars because it does not serve meat. It seems like an arbitrary distinction as to what constitutes good and great – one can have a three-star meal without, say, seafood (or vegetables for that matter.) There was no reason to serve meat in this meal; it was completely unnecessary in the progression of plates. What I do wish Chef Fox would do is focus more on vegetable dishes and their essence, as opposed to vegetable dishes that resemble meat dishes. There is great potential in a meal of this type where the tastes and textures greatly outnumber a more traditional meat-based tasting menu. This meal, which had such a quality, would rank high in the list of international meals available on that day. The bar has been raised considerably from last year and it will be interesting to see if the momentum continues throughout the remaining seasons.
Spring is the time to go; if you can not go now, my second lunch from a few weeks ago will be posted shortly.
1 – Boring in the context of what Chef Fox is capable of creating. There are better pizzas out there; and there is better pasta. What there is not better are vegetable-centric dishes that push our traditional notions of taste and texture.
2 – Yes, the chef knew I was coming for lunch.