Vegetarian restaurant, yoga, Northern California – the combination of those things could easily lead the uninitiated to view a restaurant as some sort of stereotypical California joke. That would be a mistake – a big mistake. I am not a vegan nor even a vegetarian – never was and never will be. I love meat. It is a big part of my diet and holds a significant place in my heart and on my plate. While I wish that I was into yoga, alas, I’m not, nor am I into any particular form of set exercise. As lovely as it is, I don’t live in California either. I’m an eastern boy. This is not to say that I don’t enjoy California, being active or eating vegetables, fruits, nuts or other meatless mouthfuls. I most certainly do, especially when prepared and served as they were at Ubuntu, the vegetarian restaurant located within a yoga studio in Napa, California.
Ubuntu first came to prominence about three years ago under the kitchen guidance of Chef Jeremy Fox. Unfortunately, I never had the opportunity to experience the restaurant under his direction as he left there just over one year ago. Then sous chef Aaron London was promoted to assume the position of Chef de Cuisine, while Carl Swanson rose to become head Pastry Chef following the departure of Pastry Chef Deanie Fox, who left the restaurant along with her husband. Both chefs have very serious resumes behind them. London, only 26 years old when he took over at Ubuntu, had already worked stints at Bottega, L’Astrance, Blue Hill at Stone Barns and Daniel. He had also helped to open Ubuntu as a cook, finally rising to Executive Sous Chef under Fox. Swanson, then 28 years old, also boasts an impressive background having previously worked at Manresa, Cyrus and Meadowood before being recruited to Ubuntu by Deanie Fox.
With Fox’s departure, I might have written off Ubuntu, figuring that with him gone, so was the allure. However, it was due to my evening’s dining partner, Chuck of Chuckeats.com that I had not done so and was there that night. Chuck had been a huge fan of Ubuntu under Jeremy Fox and was still a fan of Ubuntu under Aaron London, though he hasn’t yet written about it on his blog. We met there on a quiet, late November Monday evening. I had driven up from Oakland and checked into the lovely, nearby Napa River Inn, while Chuck had driven up separately from his home elsewhere in the Bay Area.
The meal opened with an assortment of snacks including local Marcona almonds with vadouvan, young head lettuces in parcels and freshly picked and brined Sevillano olives. The almonds were addicting, the lettuce parcels refreshing and the olives interesting. The olives had great texture, but were lacking in depth of flavor, perhaps because of the very brief cure. Nevertheless, they were enjoyable for their uniqueness.
What the olives may have lacked in flavor came in spades with the rapidly addictive sunchoke fries served with a porcini based emulsion. The fries were crisp on the outside and soft in the interior as a good fry should be and though a bit sweet in the way a sunchoke could be, it was an appropriate sweetness, not overpowering and not cloying. Good on their own, they were beautifully balanced with the porcini emulsion, which provided depth, umami and an earthy balance. This dish may have looked a little pedestrian, but it was anything but that.
Chickpeas a la catalan with a sauce romesco came to the table. The garbanzos were soft and sweet, perfectly cooked with a melt-in-your-mouth consistency, all while retaining the structure. The romesco was thick and lovely with bold, appropriate flavor – a very nice mix.
The last of the amuses was a squash and galangal leaf mousse with oxalis on top, crunchy radish and bachelor’s button (cornflower). The galangal leaf, grown by the restaurant had been lightly toasted. The dish utilized a good balance of flavors to go with its colorful presentation. It offered a little sweet, a little salt, some acid and a touch of bitterness while the radish provided a nice crunchy contrast to the soft mousse.
The first official “course” arrived not long after the snacks were devoured. The Tokyo Turnip Soup, billed as one of the “chef’s favorite things” consisted of miso egg yolk, miso radish, turnip tops, three different tuiles (toasted nori, matcha green tea and smoked soy and egg white) and a broth made from kombu matsutake and fermented apple. This was served with a junmai ginjo sake from Chikurin called Karoyaka or “Lightness.” This was a wonderful dish making it quite understandable as to why it is one of Chef London’s “favorite things.” Every bite offered something new and different, but still cohesive as a dish. According to Chuck, this dish was clearly one belonging to Chef London as were most of the snacks. Impressive.
While we waited for the next course, we experienced the incongruity of a world class restaurant also being the home of a yoga studio as the studio let out its patrons in the middle of dinner service. It was something that could only really happen in California.
To go with these earthborn delights we started with a Riesling, a half bottle of Salomon Undhof 2007 from Pfaffenberg.
Despite not ever having been a huge fan of beets before, I have recently enjoyed some wonderful beet dishes recently, the best one being the beet salad I had back in October at The Oval Room in Washington, D.C. The Forono beets with borscht made from the beet leaves, horseradish dusted red potato, creme fraiche, microgreens and pickled quail eggs wasn’t too far behind, clever, delicious, beautiful and balanced with varied textures and flavors.
Teeny tiny steamed buns stuffed with buratta cheese, topped with sunchoke and cacao nib and served with sunchoke tostones, roast and raw fuyu persimmon and smoked broccoli was perhaps the least satisfying dish of the night. The flavors were good, but the texture of the soft bun with the soft cheese didn’t elevate the dish.
The next dish was a celebration of fennel. Centered around “new” grits (Arbuckle from Humboldt County) infused with sharp cheddar and parmesan, it included fennel “transparency,” confit smoked “orion” fennel, French radish, fennel frond and a fennel beignet. The grits were nice and creamy, but overall I found the dish to be a bit too weighted towards a sour profile for my taste. Ubuntu is known for having a number of variations of this dish centered on the grits. The grits do make a great focal point, but I would have preferred a more balanced support for them.
Speaking of balance, throughout the meal, we had perfectly balanced service from our waitress, Rachel. She was friendly, but not overbearing. She was extremely knowledgeable, not just about the food, but about Ubuntu’s wine list and she was efficient and on top of everything. I’ve rarely encountered better service in the American style.
Whatever misgivings I may have had with the previous two dishes were quickly erased by the next one, an alubia bianco bean ribollita with sun-dried pear, toasted garlic and parmesan crackling topped with cavolo nero and “ruby streaks” mustard greens. This had the delightful textural contrast that I found wanting in the steamed buns and superb flavor balance and multiple dimensions I didn’t find in the grits dish. The secret underlying the dish, I was told when praising the dish to rachel was a green fig kim chee that they call a “fig chee.” The figs themselves actually came from a fig tree from a restaurant next to Ubuntu that wasn’t going to use them. Despite starting to get rather full, I found myself wanting to eat more of this dish as I went along.
To go with the ribollita and following dishes we switched to a red, a local Cabernet Franc, the 2005 Premiere Etage from Lang and Reed. The chocolate and cherry notes within the wine complemented the remainder of our meal as the Riesling did for the courses that preceded it.
Blackberry leaf and sunchoke pillows, swiss rainbow chard, “loopy” sunchokes, Midnight Moon goat’s cheese and Burgundy truffle was yet another beautiful dish, representing the “meat” course of the meal. The “pillows’ were very gnocchi-like, but this dish didn’t have quite the same “eat me” drive on a filling stomach as the ribollita before it.
Vadouvan spiced “lunga di napoli‟ squash, raw “candy roaster” squash and torn brioche salad, brioche bread crust “gravy”, pine nut pudding, pickled “fuji‟ apples, chervil was indeed lighter and heading toward dessert without actually being a dessert or too sweet. It was as if it was a savory dessert. The pine nut puree added a particularly sophisticated touch to the dish, which also had a bit of heat to it, something that hadn’t been present previously during the meal. It was a pleasing touch.
Ubuntu is a Zulu word meaning to build community or to express humanity. All of the dishes we were served were shared dishes, a concept that comes from the name of the restaurant itself.
Porcinis and white satin carrots cooked with pine needles, and served with fermented apple and quince soffrito. The carrots are first cooked sous vide with grapeseed oil then roasted in brown butter. With the food served on a glass plate, the sense was that we were eating directly off the rustic table, not unfitting for such an earthy tasting dish.
The last savory course was the famous Ubuntu “garden snake”. The mix of salad greens, mushrooms, hazelnuts and edible flowers is meant to evoke a snake moving over a log. It is a tasty salad and a nice light way to ease from savories to sweets.
Carl Swanson’s desserts started with a bang. True to the vegetable centric approach of Ubuntu, our first dessert was very vegetable centric. We were brought squash sorbet floats with sage soda, lemon-fennel tapioca and cranberry. Not at all an intuitive combination to me, it was nevertheless as tasty as it was colorful.
The savory dessert theme continued with caramelized pumpkin cake with raisin tuile, root beer ice cream and wild rice krispie treats.
Soft Tcho chocolate with Meyer lemon leaf ice cream, bay leaf meringue and persimmon came next in a dessert that looked like a cross between the desserts of Alex Stupak and Jordan Kahn. The desserts came out together and were for sharing. Both managed to be interesting, delicious and beautiful. With Stupack, Kahn and Sam Mason now having essentially left the pastry world, Swanson has shown the ability to take off from where they left off. He is a talent to keep an eye on and his desserts a spoon in.
While not every dish was a knockout, they were all at least very good. They managed to make a vegetarian meal interesting, delicious and fully satisfying for me. While I have and do love well prepared vegetarian fare, I generally like to have some animal protein in my meal. At Ubuntu, however, I really didn’t miss it. It wasn’t as if they tried to create any illusions of meat either.It was simply good ingredients, with dishes that were well thought out and prepared.
Aaron London is a finalist for the james Beard Rising Star Chef of the Year Award. When I first heard about Jeremy Fox leaving Ubuntu, I thought I had missed my chance to have a great meal at that restaurant. Luckily, I was wrong. London has filled in admirably. Given that he was Fox’s sous chef, it is difficult for me to ascertain how much of the current quality comes from London and how much is left over from Fox. While some of Fox’s influence undoubtedly remains, it is also not clear to me how much of a creative role London played while Fox was still there. Time will really tell, but if London can keep up what he was doing in November, he may very well win the Rising Star Chef award and deserve it too.