Ubuntu (Napa, CA) – Something Wonderful

The Michelin man roared through the Bay Area last week and proclaimed what many already knew – Ubuntu is a rising star. It is a great honor for the incredible work that has taken place over the past two years.1 It is one of the country’s most important restaurant as it pushes the boundaries on the meaning of, not vegetarian cuisine, but of ingredients. Alinea may not this country’s El Bulli – it just might be Ubuntu – as it deconstructs vegetables, their constituent parts, and builds a new fine dining language with these, heretofore, neglected building blocks.

Summer was coming to an end and this meal gave it an honorable send off. Every dish was a winner – composed and balanced – and the meal really hit the perfect note for me. There was a restraint and subtlety, despite what appears to be a large number of ingredients, in both individual courses and the arc of the entire menu. One could argue that Fox’s focus on just cooking vegetables is allowing him to focus and hone his creativity. The food, like Noma (Copenhagen), has the surprise of the new without (solely) relying on molecular tricks – as Fox uses his “seed to stalk” aesthetic with vegetables many have not heard of in preparations no one has thought of.

San Francisco can have its endless clones of each other – house-made salumi / organic salad / sustainable protein (none of those adjectives a guarantee for quality) – Ubuntu, in Napa, is exciting to me.

The full menu is listed below with pictures. Items in CAPS are from Ubuntu’s own garden. Chef Fox knew I was eating. I was happy.

“summer hints at autums”

Ubuntu, almost by definition, is about seasonality and place. After spending the day racing around Napa, working on a top secret project, during a 101-degree day, a series of refreshing starters helped us ease into the meal. The shiso ice was the obvious cooler but its mintiness further helped stimulate and refresh the taste buds, more so than a basil ice might have, despite the mind thinking tomato/green/basil. The tomato water was sufficiently acidic with just enough apple to give it a touch of tartness too.

creme fraiche with nori, HONG VIT, black salt

Crisp Hong Vit radishes, eat the whole thing, just as you would at the other great restaurants. The nori creme fraiche was quite tasty, giving it an (expected) umami quality. (The trainspotters might note an interesting link to and/or cross-pollination of ideas shared by Fox and James Syabout (Commis) as the latter had a carrot / seaweed dish around the same time.) It is hard to get the perfect proportion of the black, slightly smoky, salt on the radish, but when you do…

‘moon and stars’ melon
preserved rind, ‘mexican sour’ GHERKIN, whipped coconut

The sweetness of this dish was daring at this point in the meal but this instantly claimed a spot atop my Ubuntu favorites. If Ubuntu had the obsession with quotes and irony of the nearby The French Laundry, it may have been called “Fruit de Mer.” The sweet and sour interplay, both near the extremes, pushed and pulled inside the mouth, oscillating between each. The textural interplay between the rind, gherkin, and whipped coconut (and leaves) had a satisfying give. It was remarkably sweet, potentially turning off some diners, but I appreciated the fact that an overly sweet dish does not have to be relegated to the dessert section; it fell in place nicely, the tanginess of the gherkin still providing a refreshing respite from the (hot) day.

a simple ‘black zebra’ TOMATO
BASILS, goat ricotta, LION’S RUN “saba”

This dish was popular, every table seemingly ordering it, and I had hoped we would receive it on the tasting menu – we did but it was my least favorite of the night (that is, of course, relative.) The saba gave the tomato an umami quality as it had soaked into the skinless red tomato; but it seemed a touch heavy after the much lighter previous dishes.

CELTUCE with pine nut and soy milk
‘kadota’ FIG pulp, VERBENA, tiny TURNIPS

‘gem’ avocado and ‘purple haze’ CARROTS
crispy OCA, ‘poha’ BERRY, pickled ‘eisley wax’ CHILI

A distant (taller) cousin of guacamole, the textural components of this dish (mushy avocado, crisp poha berry leaves and oca, crunchy carrots) provided an interesting composition when chewing. The gooseberry and pickled chili gave it a tart kick, replacing the traditional role of lime.

‘forono’ BEETS and BEETBERRY
red quinoa, charred STRAWBERRY, hazelnut

I thought the original six-to-seven interpretations of beet dishes from the Spring were Tanguy-inspired, but there is some Miro in the shapes and color. Nonetheless, the original beet dishes were great examples of exploring an ingredient’s different components (root, leaf, etc) and its personality with different preparations. If that dish was exploratory, this version might be the resulting masterpiece, ranking on par with the masterful pea dish. There are many variables complementing each other in this dish, texturally and tastefully. The beetberries gave it a wonderful tang and provided the right counterpoint to the (beet) quinoa and hazelnut (dirt.) This was a 3-star conception executed at a 3-star level – exciting stuff!

pickled ‘delfino’ CORIANDER, vadouvan

A further example of exploring an ingredient with a few preparations – zucchini with vadouvan – and nearly masterful – the Manresa years really show through on this – restraint. This was a progressive contrast from the richness of the beets – strong flavors but light ingredients and small portions – and showed that a menu can weave instead of following a linear path towards heaviness and submission.

CAPSICUM and po delta black rice broth
summer SUCCULENTS, our sevillano olive

Ulterior Epicure has posted a formula for tasting menus that would be funny, if it were not so tragically true. Readers of this blog probably know of my distaste for the “big punch” at the end – the large slab of protein – much preferring a “soft landing.” It could be a function of the ingredients (although Ubuntu has forced me to submit in the past) but this dish provided a sufficiently savory, but soft, end to the meal. The roasted pepper jus/black rice broth was beautiful – refined.

SUNFLOWER ‘barley’ and hearts
arbuckle grits, ‘polka’ CORN, green TOMATO jam

BASIL parfait, silverado strawberries roasted gently, VERBANA meringue, lime granite

Often, “dessert time” at restaurants is almost a binary opposite of the savory portion of the menu, with nary a reference to the meal. Desserts at Ubuntu continue the trajectory of the meal, despite clearly being sweet. The basil parfait and lime granite helped refresh the palate, while potentially referencing the initial dish, and continuing the story. The flavors were crisp and bright.

cornbread pain perdu with BLACKBERRIES
frog hollow peaches, HONEY ice cream, kettle corn

Texture (kettle corn), taste (honey), and temperature (peaches) – this is accomplished. In particular, Deannie Fox’s ice creams are always a (wonderful) surprise.

This review gushes a bit too much but this meal was one of my favorites of the year, eclipsing my previous Ubuntu meals in the Spring. (As I write this review, I have just finished another Ubuntu meal – it may have been even better – how about brioche and mushroom creme brulee? The review may take awhile to publish, considering there are a few Japan posts to come.)

- chuck

1 – Note that this reviewed meal is absolutely two-star quality but the Michelin man has to start somewhere. I do feel their SF ratings are pretty accurate on the 2- and 3-star levels – Michael Mina never deserved two stars; Meadwood is a daring choice that I agree with; and San Francisco proper’s “fancy” restaurants (La Folie, Gary Danko, Fleur de Lys, & Dining Room) are nothing more than 1-star restaurants in fancy digs.

  • Paul

    The food looks so beautiful, it makes you wonder what the chef could do with meat and fish IMO.

  • http://foodsnobblog.wordpress.com Food Snob

    Did you eat the gooseberry skins?

  • chuckeats

    good question – i can’t remember if they were dried/dehydrated/and/or/fried – but probably not.

  • http://www.alifewortheating.com Adam

    Chuck your photos and dish descriptions make me want to jump to Ubuntu right now. They confirm my suspicion that Ubuntu may be the most innovative restaurant in the country right now. The presentation of “moon and stars” is gorgeous. Its just painful that I have not yet been to experience Ubuntu for myself.

  • chuckeats

    Adam, next time you’re in town, lmk, and we’ll set it up

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

    Great report and recap as usual Chuck. Adam, you really need to get to ubuntu. And I need to return. NEED.

    re: gooseberry skins. Doubtful you’d want to eat them. And if you did, you’d probably remember the experience. Those papery husks are usually naturally dry with the berries are picked off the plant.

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

    @ chuck. I’m such a predictable sop. The beets dish is the one that gets me worked up the most from this meal. So does the look of those Frog Hollow peaches at the end. You want to know something pathetic? I had Frog Hollow peaches recently — in New York. That kind of nonsense almost cancels out the very soul of what places like Frog Hollow are about.

  • http://www.alifewortheating.com Adam

    Thanks, Chuck. I’m hoping to take a trip out to the valley either in mid December or mid February. I’ll definitely keep you posted. I’m dying to go to Ubuntu. I see a lot of visual/aesthetic similarities to Noma. These photos are killing me.

  • http://verygoodfood.dk Trine

    Ubuntu doesn’t currently have a star?
    Like you said in CPH – Manresa and Ubuntu are on my list! :-)

  • chuckeats

    trine, it has a star now – it did not have one last year.

  • http://verygoodfood.dk Trine

    Thanks for the clarification. Yeah, I was really surprised it didn’t have any before.

  • Coomer

    Hrm… just dined there on Saturday. The service… let’s leave it at “horrible” and be done with it. The food, while good, was nowhere near revolutionary, or *truly* inspirational. Fox is gone… so maybe that had an effect.

    The food was good. But honestly, I’ve had much better “vegetable” centric meals at The Green Zebra in Chicago. And the service at Green Zebra is much better.

    I had such high, high hopes for Ubuntu. I’m not sure I’d bother again.

    Now… fortunately, we backed up Friday’s Ubuntu reservation with a Saturday res at Manresa- now that was a meal!!!!

  • chuckeats

    Coomer – now that Fox has left, these reviews are null & void. I have not been since the switch and I’m not particularly compelled at the moment. I just ate @ Manresa on Thursday so, yes, I know your meal there was spot on!

  • chuckeats

    (and, incidentally, the desserts you had @ Manresa were by Deannie Fox – who made the desserts pictured here.)

  • Coomer

    Manresa- what more is there to say? I date a vegetarian, so it’s often “interesting” to get a tasting with the stipulation- really, no meat, no fish…. sometimes there are hits- Chef Yamamoto did a fabulous job with the request at RyuGin, and the French Laundry and Per Se already have a set tasting of vegetables, others not so much… Chef Kinch did a wonderful tasting for her on Saturday.

    I am already planning a return trip for each of the upcoming “seasons” to see how the garden changes and the menu reflects that.

    Do you happen to know what Chef Fox has planned now that he has left Ubuntu?

  • Pingback: ChuckEats » Why David Kinch Deserved to Win the James Beard Award – He Deserved It