Ubuntu (Napa, CA) – Channeling the Garden

The first spring lunch at Ubuntu, two weeks before, was a revelation but this meal was fine-tuned to near-perfection.1 It was an exploration into rarely discussed possibilities of (Napa) springtime vegetables. Forging past the Chez Panisse mold of “simple and fresh”, Chef Fox is committed to a cuisine of the vegetable – understanding, coaxing, re-inventing, and creating. Every dish delved into the essence of the ingredient(s), tugged and pulled with tastes and textures, without the tricks of meat mimicry. Ulterior Epicure described Ubuntu’s food as a “living conversation dictated by the garden“; but I might say it is a “conversation with the garden.”2

vichyssoise chasseur (before pour)

Beginning with my first Ubuntu lunch, and running over what will likely be the next few months, the restaurants being reviewed all share a common loose thread. Manresa, Noma, Ubuntu, and The Sportsman are forging ahead with similar ideas of nature, locality, and fine dining. Others like Coi and McCrady’s are gravitating towards a similar approach. All of the chefs use “molecular” techniques but they have applied them toward expressing the food and season, understanding and exploring the underlying ingredients, instead of promoting a dinner theater. As mentioned in the Manresa post, in reference to Daniel Patterson’s “Carrots are the new Caviar“, a “fine dining” ingredient does not necessarily have to be “luxurious”; but, instead, it should merely allow a chef to fully express themselves.3 Chef Fox’s food is probably the most conceptual when it comes to vegetables (he has an advantage since that is his sole focus) but the pictures will tell the tale. A healthy respect for Michel Bras is served with each dish in each of these restaurants.

The notes for this meal were scarce; and the titles below are not official. At best, they will merely serve as teases that entice you to make a reservation now. The Bay Area bounty is still plentiful and, while some of the ingredients below have passed through their season, an upcoming lunch is mandatory (for me) to discover what new creations await.

carrot & nasturtium

the infamous pea dish (before consumme)

seven degrees of beets

carta da musica

radish stew

savory expression of orion fennel


sweet expression of orion fennel

rhubarb float

- chuck

1 – Yes, Chef Fox knew I was coming.

2 – This reminds me of one of my current obsessions – Deadwood – and the George Hearst character, “Boy the Earth talks to” – though his talent is for discovering rare metals, not cooking. The writing, and acting, on this show eclipse my former favorite – The Wire – and, if you happen to run into me, and if I know you have any interest in literature, you will have to listen to me rave about the show and its greatness.

3 – People are often surprised that my idea of fine restaurants rarely coincides with theirs – theirs being the stereotypical notion of a “fine French restaurant” with heavy doses of cream, fat, diamond necklaces, and stuffy suits. Fish will always be my first love, my workout regime requires an ample dose of protein, but I have learned through my dining adventures that vegetables are often just as exciting.

  • http://verygoodfood.dk Trine

    Wow, Chuck, it certainly looks like perfection. Sure hope I can experience this one day. Thanks for posting it. I’m drooling.

  • Paul

    Wow the food there looks truly beautiful especially that rubarb float which i can almost taste through my laptop computer Lol, P.S taste wise how would you say you meal at Ubuntu compares to Manresa Chuck.

  • abe

    are these guys chefs or florists

  • http://www.ulteriorepicure.com ulterior epicure

    Chuck, were I so close to ubuntu, I would be there monthly, if not weekly.

    re: “…conversation with the garden…” You could not have improved upon my description any better.

  • http://www.epicures.wordpress.com Michael

    What strikes me from your gorgeous photos is how complex most of these dishes are. That may be somewhat of an illusion from all the flowers, but they appear more like “Pierre Gagnaire discovers vegetables and flowers” than the clarity of Arpege or Bras, or even noma.

  • http://www.cookingschoolconfidential.com CookingSchoolConfidential.com

    Such a pretty plate. In fact, so many pretty plates on your site.

    We’re studying plating at school (I’m a culinary school student) and I thought I was doing well thanks to an arts background.

    Sigh. I see I still have a lot to learn.