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The Art of Ubuntu

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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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