Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Dish on Dining: Ubuntu Restaurant & Yoga Studio

Eating Green Has Never Been So Tantalizing
1140 Main St., Napa
Downtown Napa
PH: 707.251.5656
Open Mon.–Fri., 5:30–9 p.m. (until 10 p.m. Fridays), Sat.–Sun., 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m. and 5:30–10 p.m. (until 9 p.m. Sundays)
Major credit cards, reservations accepted

NAPA, Calif.
Chef Jeremy Fox is the media darling of the national food press, being named “rising star” for his culinary repertoire of vegetable-only dishes at Ubuntu Restaurant & Yoga Studio. Yep, that’s right. It’s a restaurant and a yoga studio. So like me, you’re probably thinking tofu and lots of thin women in pastel-colored athletic wear.

But that was far from the case from the first moment we stepped into the handsome and open space of Ubuntu’s dining room in downtown Napa. I visited Ubuntu last weekend for lunch with my fellow food blogger, Foodhoe, and her husband, Mr. K, who graciously did the driving for our quick trip up north.

We were all interested in seeing what the fuss was. I’m not a big meat eater, but I do like my protein (typically from chicken, pork and any kind of fish), so I had my reservations about a whole meal based on vegetables. Foodhoe is actually on a fruit and vegetables diet so this was a real treat for her. Mr. K was just game for anything.

Ubuntu (pronounced oo-BOON-two) is an African word that’s not easily translated. It has something to do with community, respect and sharing, and the restaurant reflects this mentality in the environmentally conscious design and the service of the young and friendly staff.

The main room has a warm feel with its richly refurbished recycled wood and reclaimed furniture, and the walls popped with colorful abstract paintings. An unusual decorative item is a sculpture of humanity looking over a very long communal table at the center of the restaurant. I kept thinking it was some performance art and the four statues would come to life. Luckily, we decided to eat in the back patio so I didn’t have to worry about any attack of the artworks.

It was a beautiful Napa Valley day to be outside (in the beginning), and we were surrounded by potted plants of various fruit trees and flowers. From where we were sitting, we could see a yoga class beginning upstairs. (When you’re in the restaurant, you can get some semblance of yoga forms from a frosted glass window.)

I started off lunch with a watermelon wine cooler that was perfectly blended with a distinct and refreshing watermelon flavor.

Ubuntu’s menu is made up primarily of small plates, and we were encouraged by our server to share amongst our table. So Foodhoe got us started with two plates of the “bites” (which looked mostly like bar snacks, but fancy of course). We got a plate of the Castelvetrano Olives ($5) marinated in carrot top pesto and Marcona Almonds ($5) coated in lavender sugar and sea salt.

The olives were unusually green and rounded. How I wished I had a martini right about now. Anywho, the flesh was incredibly soft, almost mushy like mashed potatoes. Mr. K thought it would have been better as a tapenade, and I agreed. I felt the carrot top pesto didn’t really add anything.

The almonds were addictively good like all nuts are, but they had a bit too much of the lavender sugar and sea salt. Some of you know I love love lavender, but even I know it’s not always the best match for certain foods. It’s a very distinctive and dominant herb, and in this case it seemed to be conflicted with the sugar and the savory almonds. A dusting probably would have been fine.

Despite the awkward start to our lunch, the rest that came was a parade of colorful and beautifully plated dishes. (Everything was served on Heath Ceramics, another one of my favorite things in life.)

First up was the Cool Watermelon and Lemongrass Soup ($9). The server brought out the bowl that was swept on one side with a splash of coconut milk and decorated with a mini cascade of miniature wild flowers. Then she poured the soup into the bowl in front of us. I almost thought she gave us the wrong soup because it looked like carrot soup, but she says the cooking of the watermelon turns it orange. Hmmm, I have to test that out one day.

With the hints of lemongrass and kieffer lime, the soup definitely had a Thai sensibility to it. I didn’t get a strong watermelon flavor (like I did with my wine cooler) so I was still convinced that this was carrot soup. At the bottom was this sac of basil seed that Chef Fox presents as “caviar.” While it could resemble caviar, it didn’t have the salty taste. So it was an odd discovery at the bottom of the bowl, but I give him props for thinking out of the box.

Next came one of the restaurant’s signature dish, the Cauliflower in a Cast Iron Pot ($13). This was a tiny pot with cauliflower made in three ways as a real tribute to probably one of the more underappreciated vegetables after Brussels sprouts. Being a fan of cauliflower, I enjoyed the creamy texture of the cooked cauliflower and the roasted puree cauliflower on the top. Again, everything was beautifully plated with some thinly sliced raw cauliflower creating a backdrop. The dish was served with brown butter toast like how you would eat pate.

Definitely not a small plate are Ubuntu’s pizza options. There were two on the menu. One was topped with onions and local chevre but we selected the Pizza Bianco ($16), which was a white pizza topped with bellweather ricotta, a mushroom puree and lemon thyme. The server asked if we wanted a fresh farm egg on top, and we said yes once she talked about the gooey yolk from the sunny side egg being slathered over the pizza crust. She had me at gooey.

The pizza was a perfect Neapolitan-style thin crust pizza and the ricotta cheese was amazing. With the egg, this was the perfect breakfast pizza and was one of my favorite dishes of the day.

While the menu didn’t have the typical vegetarian dishes of tofu and kale, it did have a salad (called Today’s Leaves and Things, $11). And Foodhoe and I wanted to see how Chef Fox can present a salad and make it exciting. Of course, what came out was this beautiful array of field greens with fresh ingredients from the season. So that meant baby heirloom carrots and luscious black mission figs. Many of the greens come from the restaurant’s biodynamic garden further north in Napa. The salad was simply dressed with lemon juice, olive oil and sea salt. It was the sprinkling of sea salt that I thought was simply ingenious because it was enough to flavor the greens so you can taste their natural goodness.

One of our final main dishes was another one of my favorites, and that was the Local Polenta with Corn Pudding ($14). I generally don’t eat polenta because it’s just mush to me (unless it’s day old and grilled!), but this dish was wonderful with the seasonal sweet corn kernels blending in with the polenta. Everything was topped with an array of fried peppers (that really looked more like they were roasted). In the center was a dollop of sofrito, which is the Spanish paste made by slow cooking tomatoes and other vegetables like bell pepper or carrots. Sofrito is a basic ingredient in building a good paella, and Ubuntu says it makes theirs over three days! Now that’s slow cooking, and intensely worth the wait.

We moved to desserts, which is prepared by Fox’s wife, Deanie. We started with what’s becoming a signature dessert: the Vanilla Bean Cheesecake in a Jar ($9). It was this cute little jar of cream and huckleberries with a layer of almond-teeccino crumble in the center. On the menu, “cheesecake” is in quotes, so it makes me think that the cheesecake portion of this dessert isn’t made from cheese. But it sure was creamy and thick. It tasted just like cheesecake and I wished there was more of it (the whipped cream on the first layer was a bit too much, I thought).

As the day got hotter, a refreshing Raspberry Sorbet Float ($9) also hit the spot, mostly because it was made with rose geranium soda, and I love the subtle sweetness of rose water. The float included lychee-tapioca pearls that were soft and pleasant. My only wish is that it was served with three straws.

Our last dessert was a trio of mini vegan cupcakes ($5). This is what we would call darling, with the slice of fig and an orange zest on top. The cake itself was Devil’s Food Cake (made with carrots) and was moist as can be, despite being vegan. It was a quick pop in the mouth, and that brought an end to our incredibly inventive lunch.

Despite eating quite a few selections, I did feel the lunch menu was a bit limited. (We probably ate 75 percent of what was available.) So it would be interesting to check out dinner at Ubuntu, which also offers a tasting menu for $125.

Side note: As we left, I spotted Chef Fox in the main dining room by the prep station probably going over some details for the night’s menu. This photo isn’t my best food paparazzi shot.

Although I said the lunch menu was limited, I did feel full with everything we ate (it must have been the three courses of dessert). So I left satisfied and enlightened at how someone could look at dishes that celebrates vegetables instead of a vegetarian looking for sustenance. I’m sure many vegetarians would rush to Ubuntu, like how they did when Greens first opened up in San Francisco years ago. But this isn’t a vegetarian restaurant. It’s just a damn good restaurant.

You can read Foodhoe’s take on our lunch here.

Single guy rating: 4.5 stars (Eat the World)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner

Ubuntu on Urbanspoon


http://feedingjason.blogspot.com/ said...

that sorbet looked awesome! grest blog!

foodhoe said...

ahhh, it's fun to relive some of those bites from that delicious lunch Chef Ben! Sorry I ordered that watermelon soup as you were drinking the watermelon wine cooler, I was so dazzled by the shiney cool menu and not paying attention... Oh if only we could have that pizza for breakfast!

mikky said...

love the cheesecake in a jar... different, yet beautiful presentation... :)

Carolyn Jung said...

I am so envious you ate there. I have been wanting to try it because of all the accolades it has gotten. But it's a tough sell for my hubby. As you recall, his nickname is Meat Boy. 'Nuf said. So, Single Guy, would a Meat Boy miss not having meat there?

Chef Ben said...

CJ: Feed Meat Boy the pizza with egg on top and I think he'll be happy!

Manger La Ville said...

I have been meaning to eat there. Some of the plates sound delicious, while others seem a little lacking. But until I try I can't say. I appreciate your honesty.

Katrina said...

great review and pics. makes me want to go back. i loved ubuntu when i tried it a few months ago and wish we had something like it in dallas. the vegetables are amazing. i never thought peas could taste so good.