The Art of Ubuntu

Ubuntu's gorgeous and delicious potatoes with sauerkraut mousse.

Are you sitting down?

Meat Boy went vegetarian.

OK, it was only for one evening, but yes, my ultra-carnivorous husband actually ate an unprecedented meatless meal recently.

He figured if he was going to take that bold step, he might as well do it at Ubuntu in Napa, the veggie-centric restaurant that has garnered critical acclaim far and wide, including a Michelin star.

Ubuntu “is an ethic or humanist philosophy focusing on people’s allegiances and relations with each other emphasizing community, sharing and generosity,” according to its Web site. It’s also unique in that it boasts a yoga studio on its mezzanine level that’s fronted by frosted glass. Indeed, if you peer toward the back staircase, you can often spot mat-carrying students on their way to and from class.

If that all sounds a little too touchy-feely, granola-loving, Birkenstock-ish, you’re in for a surprise. The food, with much of the ingredients sourced from its own biodynamic garden, is a revelation.

If you’re expecting fresh, but rather tame and uninspired food, you couldn’t be more wrong. The dishes here are like a Versace fashion show on a plate — a riot of vivid colors and forms that make you sit up and take notice each time one is set down on the table. The flavors are shockingly bold, developed and complex. This is not timid tasting food in the least, despite the fact that there is no meat, poultry or seafood present whatsoever. There’s also no tofu or seitan — mainstays of most other vegetarian restaurants — at least not on the current menu. Instead, it’s all about the stellar vegetables and great technique.

Yes, there is butter and plenty of cheese used here. But you can opt to get many dishes vegan-style.

I was invited to dine as a guest of the restaurant a week ago. It was my first time to this four-year-old restaurant. I wish I had tried it when opening Chef Jeremy Fox (who went on to become creative director for the Tyler Florence Group for five months) was still on board, just for comparison’s sake. But Executive Chef Aaron London, seems to be carrying on splendidly. He cooked for awhile with Fox at Ubuntu, before leaving for a spell to work at Bottega in Yountville. London also has worked at such acclaimed establishments as Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York. Ironically enough, like Fox, who was known for his meat and charcuterie skills when he worked at Manresa in Los Gatos, London also helped open the meat- and foie gras-centric Au Pied du Cochon in Montreal.

The warm, artsy, casual dining room.

An amuse bouche in a shot glass arrived not long after we were seated. It contained mushroom stock infused with green coffee beans, of all things. It was surprisingly “meaty” tasting with just a hit of spiciness.

"Garden Snake'' salad that's arranged in an L-shape on a glass plate.

The dishes are designed to be shared. We started with the “Garden Snake” ($16) a salad of leaves, flowers and roots so alive looking that they looked almost like they were growing out of the glass plate they were piled on top of in an L-shape. Truffled pecorino cheese was offered on the side to add if we liked. And believe me, we liked, piling it on. The salad was as lightly dressed as imaginable to let the bitterness, earthiness and sweetness of the greens shine through. It’s the type of dish you feel virtuous eating.

Chinese meets Italian in this dish of steamed bun with burrata.

Sweet, tender rutabaga with rutabaga bread and citrus.

Next, the “Ubuntu steamed bun” ($14). Whoever would have thought a Chinese-style steamed bun would work with a filling of creamy, luscious Italian burrata? But it does. The pillowy bun was further flavored by dehydrated, toasted crumbles of sunchoke sprinkled on top. Sunchoke tostones — crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside — were scattered on the plate and worth fighting for. I only wished there was more than one bun on the plate, as it makes sharing a little difficult.

“Rutabaga and Its Bread” ($16) features the root vegetable cooked for 24 hours until it is soft and caramelized. A wedge of moist rutabaga bread — similar to cranberry tea cake — adds texture and interest. A citrus sauce completes the dish, along with avocado rouille colored with saffron. It’s a dish with sweetness, but it never borders on being full-on dessert.

Pasta so satisfying you won't miss the fact that its meatless.

Each night, Ubuntu also features a fresh pasta dish. That night it was “Garden-Infused Fiore” ($17) — my favorite dish of the meal. The tender pasta was tossed with braised and fried artichokes, as well as caramelized grapefruit that lent a bright citrus note. It’s impossible to describe the incredible depth of savoriness this dish had.  All I know is that I wanted seconds.

The richness of cheesy grits plus the crispness of fennel frond beignets.

Next came the richest tasting dish of the night — “Arbuckle Grits Cooked with Goat’s Milk Whey and Sharp Cheddar” ($18). The grits were decadently cheesy, with the dish made all the more filling by beignets with custardy interiors of fennel fronds.

Potatoes with “kraut mousse and broth” scared some people off. The table next to me even mentioned to their server they were not fans of the fermented cabbage. But even those on the fence about kraut will end up loving this dish. The potatoes are beyond creamy in texture and a pure pleasure to eat. The puddles of whipped kraut mousse don’t even look like sauerkraut, but they have great tang that adds a nice contrast to the potatoes.

For dessert, we shared the chocolate “compressed brownie” ($10). It’s like a slender brick of ganache atop a thin layer of cake-y brownie. Pine needle ice cream that did indeed taste of vanilla and forest, as well as candied kumquats and circles of creamy pine nut pudding, completed the plate.

Chocolate atop a "compressed brownie'' with pine needle ice cream.

The parting gift was a plate of Lilliputian-sized chocolate cookie sandwiches encasing a violet marshmallow cream.

Tiny cookie sandwiches to send you off into the night.

After quite a few dishes, we left full and saitiated, but without that uncomfortable, overly stuffed feeling you get when you’ve over-indulged at so many other places.

I would definitely come back.

As for my husband?

Now that he’s tried it once, he would return, too — but only with a cheeseburger chaser.

Hey, he’s not called Meat Boy for nothing.

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Date: Tuesday, 15. February 2011 5:26
Trackback: Trackback-URL Category: Chefs, General, Going Green and Sustainable, Health/Nutrition, Restaurants

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19 comments

  1. 1

    Wow. We looked at going to Ubuntu when we were in Napa last, but didn’t make it. After your description it is going to the top of the list for our next trip!

  2. 2

    Ubuntu has been on my “list” for a while… Sounds like we would very much enjoy it… Beautiful photos, as always!

  3. 3

    Very interesting dishes here, the Rutabaga and Its Bread sounds very intriguing, sure would love to try that!

  4. 4

    What a fabulous meal! That is one interesting meatless menu.

    Cheers,

    Rosa

  5. 5

    A beautiful meal indeed, makes me want to wish I lived in Napa or at least somewhere on the West Coast

  6. 6

    Ubuntu? that’s sort of Operating System name. Looks like high end restaurant and the food looks super good.

  7. 7

    meat boy! lololol! i have one too.
    Ubuntu sounds exactly like my kind of place. vivid in color and flavor. yes please.

  8. 8

    You finally made it to Ubuntu! Looks like you had a beautiful meal. I think what’s great about Ubuntu is that it doesn’t promote itself as a vegetarian restaurant or vegan mecca, so it doesn’t cook with any restrictions. Instead, it just focuses on cooking with vegetables and ingredients that comes naturally with that, and the results are often whimsical and tasty. I have to check out Ubuntu under Chef London, but your photos shows that he’s maintaining the creativity of Fox. My only note about Ubuntu is I do feel the serving size is still small, and that’s probably why Meat Boy needs that cheeseburger chaser! ;-)

  9. 9

    I’m sure if I’d tasted all those gorgeous dishes I’d want seconds too! :)

  10. 10

    I’m so glad to hear you liked Ubuntu and that the food is still as exciting as it was. You really captured how inventive the cuisine is. I am a big fan!

  11. 11

    Ubuntu is our favorite restaurant ever. We’ve dined there with both chefs and felt the quality and uniqueness were comparable. We dined there in January and I see that the only dish we ate that you had was the fennel frond beignet/arbuckle grits. I wish my reviews sounded as great as yours!

  12. 12

    LOL at Meat Boy! He’s such a die hard meat lover :P And the food looks wonderful-I think I could be very happy eating that! :)

  13. 13

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Richard Baker, Richard Baker. Richard Baker said: Ubuntu:- Food Gal » Blog Archiv » The Art of Ubuntu http://bit.ly/exuARG […]

  14. 14

    Only started experimenting with vegetarian cuisine sometime last year (grew up with a Tongan and a die-hard BBQ loving Aussie), and I would absolutely love to see a place like this in Sydney.
    Looking at visiting this area at the end of the year, and I’ll have to add Ubuntu to the itinerary!

  15. 15

    Wow, what a great place! I bet it could make my very own meat boy go vegetarian also, lol!

  16. 16

    I was excited when I saw that you found your way to Ubuntu. I don’t live in the Bay Area, but travel there every once in a while, and I’ve been wanting to try this place ever since I read about it in an airplane magazine! This is my first glimpse of the actual dishes. Very valuable info. Thanks so much for sharing. Cheers.

  17. 17

    Ate there when Jeremy Fox was chef but this looks and sounds just as imaginative. Just read that current chef Aaron London was nominated for a James Beard award as one of the top rising chefs in America. Good to hear they’re still on their game.

  18. 18

    I too visited when Chef Fox was in charge. Very unique. Not sure I can recommend avocado dessert anything, but it was a nice stretch of culinary muscle! A worthwhile destination!

  19. 19

    […] And: Award-Winning Ubuntu […]

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