Ubuntu (Napa) – The Boundaries

Jeremy Fox left Ubuntu earlier this year, leaving the entire food paparrazi twittersphere trying to anticipate his next move – where will he cook? How could he leave? Will he stick to vegetables? I hear he will appear in the next Lady GaGa video! What about the book? On and on and around and around – it’s surprising how quickly celebrity culture has engulfed the restaurant world. I understand that fame is a powerful driver but I am most interested in the work. 1 And, Fox, in 2009, to quote my favorite line from all of The Wires, “put in the work.” 2

picking our own carrots – we had to work too

This was a late October (2009) meal, immediately after the currently-being-blogged Tokyo trip.3 The food is obviously more bombastic when compared to the monkish stylings of Japanese cuisine but the meal provided counterpoint (and différance) to such an adventure. My expectations were as high as always despite the 2-3 week dead (produce) period we found ourselves in. What’s a meal without some sort of challenge? (The challenge now is remembering enough to give you an accurate description of the meal!)

“SUMMER bids adieu”, the final of the trilogy
SHISO, black HONEY, two STRAWBERRIES, mulled TOMATO cider

The shiso and tomato cider pulled back and forth in this refreshing starter. The addition of black honey continued a trend Fox began earlier last year – introducing sweetness early, and consistently, in the meal – as it and the last strawberries of the season rounded out the flavor profiles.

BRASSICAS a la catalan
PIQUILLO tears, pine nut pudding, MINT, thompson raisin

This dish combines a few elements and trends from my favorite Ubuntu meals: vegetables served in their own light & refined consommes, a more daring use of sweetness, and a variation of the incredible broccoli/pine nut dish I shared with Julot many moons ago. The flavors were light but multi-dimensional – sweet, a hint of spice, mint (used by Fox to consistently elevate dishes to the next level – peas anyone?) Essences…. The type of dish that makes one pause.

CELTUCE parcel
kettle corn, black FIG, parmesan

ale-battered GRAPE LEAF pickles, fresh GHERKIN
GHERKIN ROOT “mayo”, rye crumb, GARDEN picallili

“forono” BEETS with vanilla, LAVENDAR, and almond
local pears, ‘red cross’ BUTTER LETTUCE, shaft blue truffles

The sweetness got heavy-handed and cloying on this dish – the only real miss of the night.

our first MASHUA, roasted and raw
salad of its leaves and flowers, three CARROTS, fuyu PERSIMMON

brioche and mushroom “creme brulee”, burnt with love
CALCOT with maple and BAY LAUREL buds, greenhouse LEEK

The sweetness continued with the intensely caramelized calcot but it brilliantly provided taste & textural contrast to the luscious and fatty leek custard. This dish, certainly a top 10 from last year, more than exemplifies the endless possibilities Fox can map out for later exploration. To taste those intensely sweet calcots, followed by the tremendous mouthfeel of that custard….

crunchy RADISH, crispy potato
APPLE pickle, WATERCRESS, horseradish fondue

a wedge of ‘gem’ avocado
green TOMATO jam doughnut, baby MACHE, spiced citrus

The wild avocado was presented table-side (I guess the camera ate my picture), invoking the most curious of reactions from the other tables. This was not done out of pretension but out of sheer amazement – this avocado dwarfed any notion of your typical market variety. And both its taste and fattiness were also extremes.

CROSNES roasted with nori
miso “bagna cauda”, smoked BORAGE, buddha’s hand

risotto of toasted mature SUNFLOWER seeds
goat’s milk whey and ricotta, young PURSLANE

This is a strong dish that literally encapsulates the philosophies behind the restaurant – seed to stalk. It also succeeds, for me, where many vegetable “risotto” dishes fail because its texture was that of risotto, as opposed to chopped up veggies in a slightly creamy sauce. The intense nuttiness of what could have been sunflower seed monotony was cut by the whey’s tanginess. The purslane rounded out the trio, salty and slightly sour. Heavy enough to finish a meal but light enough to still claim victory.

pumpernickel ice cream
onion FENNEL candied in st george absinthe

What will Jeremy Fox do next? When you look at all the restaurants in the world, there are only a handful in each country/region that are truly visionary, operating at a boundary that others will only discover years later. There are many great restaurants in every country but there are few legacies. It has been my thesis, over eight extraordinary meals in 2009, that Fox has discovered an important space in fine dining that could be influential for many years to come. He just happened to be doing it in an informal restaurant that half serves as a yoga studio.

I would like to see him refine the cuisine more, pare it down to essentials (my Japanese bias coming in), and continue to work with vegetables “off the beaten path.” He has demonstrated in the past that when working within these constraints, he can produce food that is not only inventive but of Michelin 3-star quality:

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

carta da musica

2X Shucked PEAS and GOLD SHOOTS in consomme of the shells – white chocolate, CHOCOLATE MINT, macadamia

I have not returned to Ubuntu but a return is imminent now that Northern California is hitting its vegetable stride. The new (young) chef has Aaron London has been with Ubuntu since its inception, after stints at Blue Hill at Stone Barns and L’Astrance. KevinEats recently ate there (caught a Z8 in the wild!) and the menu looks similar but clearly different – an easing into a new direction.

Onto the next chapter…

- chuck

1 – I prefer chefs in the kitchen instead of on TV

2 – Although, dreadfully out of context – you’ve never seen The Wire?

3 – I am terribly behind on posts – there will be more Tokyo posts – in due time. Sawada, Koju, & Ryugin.

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

    Vive la cuisine végétale!!

  • http://www.kevinEats.com kevinEats

    Those Z8′s are elusive beasts indeed! Judging by the shoes, that was an even rarer Alpina variant no?

    Have you heard that Fox is heading down to SoCal in May to do a guest stint at Animal (www.animalrestaurant.com)? The irony, of course, is that he will be serving a vegetarian prix fix at a notably meat-centric restaurant.

  • Coomer

    This post makes me sad. As I already commented, my recent meal at Ubuntu was a pretty significant disappointment. The food, while “decent” did not have the character that is evident in your posts of Fox’s cuisine.

    I hope he lands somewhere that allows him a similar freedom, and I will make reservations there as quickly as possible.

  • http://teenagechowhound.blogspot.com/ Faine

    I remain very, very sad indeed that Jeremy Fox is no longer at the helm at Ubuntu – I never got my last meal there. Gorgeous photography as always, and I am also waiting with bated breath for where this guy will end up.

    The guest-stint at Animal sounds totally perverse, but it might just work.

  • clea walford

    as always: thanks so much for the great article and photos!