Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Back for Seconds: Ubuntu

This is an occasional report on return visits to restaurants that I’ve already reviewed.

What’s Growing this Fall in Jeremy Fox’s Garden
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

Original visit: September 2008

NAPA, Calif.
During the Columbus Day weekend, my older sister was visiting from Hawaii. She travels a lot for work and often complains about the heavy business dinners she finds herself eating on the road. So when she suggested we spend the day in Napa Valley, I thought she might enjoy the lighter, vegetarian fare at the celebrated Ubuntu restaurant in downtown.

Joining us was my college-aged nephew and two of his friends. I don’t think they were as thrilled to be eating an all-vegetables menu. So to prep them for dinner, I took them for hamburgers earlier in the day at Taylor’s Refresher. ;-)

I was spellbound when I first visited Ubuntu for lunch last year. Chef Jeremy Fox’s magic with vegetables was showcased in beautifully plated dishes crisp in flavor and freshness. Since then, the restaurant and Chef Fox have received a multitude of national praise, and just this week received its very first Michelin star.

The menu changes regularly, although stays primarily the same throughout a season. Again, the mode was small plates shared around the table. I did notice that the dinner tasting menu was no longer offered, and the popular pizzas from lunch aren’t available at dinner (although our server says it may be added to dinner soon).

Here’s what we ate. I should say that I wasn’t as good with my note-taking this time around, so I don’t have the precise name and prices for the dishes (most dishes were in the $9-$15 range). So I’m working off memory right now.

First up was the house specialty Carta da Catalan, which was a flat bread topped with all the ingredients from the restaurant’s organic garden just up the street. It came on a pig-shaped wooden platter, which my nephew noted was probably the chef’s play on irony.

All the ingredients blended beautifully together, rounded off with dehydrated beet bits that were supposed to represent dirt from the garden. Although simple and clean in flavor, it was a challenge to pick up and eat. The flat bread hidden under the huge pile of greens is almost paper-thin, so it was more like a cracker.

This is a dish of crispy potatoes, which you can’t go wrong for college students. It was mixed with a succulent plant, which I think was called “ice plant,” and sat on a puree. This was one of my favorite dishes for its unusual ingredients (the succulent, not the potatoes) and expert preparation.

This is an example of how the dishes at Ubuntu seems to be shrinking. Although a wonderful display of fall colors, this puree of kohlrabi seemed lacking in substance and the tastes components didn't seem to be enticing. Although the crispy beans were popular with the college kids.

We got a double order of this dish, which was broccoli with padron peppers. When brought to our table, our server finished it off with a light sauce that was more a broth. Most of the college kids at the table weren’t turned on to the Spanish flavors of the roasted padron peppers, so I ended up eating most of it. While I liked the peppers, I don’t know if there was anything special in the preparation.

I was hoping the pasta dish would be substantive like the pizza to satisfy the young appetites at the table. My sister ordered it with a fried egg on top just to give my nephew some added protein. But when it arrived, it was beautiful but quite a small serving. We all got just a spoonful of taste.

I forgot what kind of pasta it was, but they were small kernels almost like a grain and served with roasted tomatoes. I enjoyed the flavors of the tomatoes and the egg did help, but it wasn’t that filling.

This is the braised sunchokes, which again came out beautifully plated. But there was a tartness to the sunchokes that I didn’t enjoy, so this was the least popular dish of the night.

These dishes represented a bit more than half of the menu, and all the other items didn’t necessarily appeal to us. My sister, probably feeling a bit guilty about not feeding her son enough to eat, suggested we move on to dessert instead of eating more orders of what we already had.

We ended up ordering almost every item on the dessert menu. Probably the most beautiful dessert was this apple, which I think was called a “Claudette.” (Again, sorry, I didn’t take notes.) This was an ingenious dessert of thinly sliced green apples layered around a filling to recreate the shape of the apple. Inside were two types of filling; we all agreed that one of the filling was an apple sorbet. What was so interesting was the apple sorbet was hard like a crunchy apple, but melted when you ate it. This was my favorite dish of the night for the presentation, creativity and taste.

Other desserts we had was the classic cheesecake in a jar (which I had last time). My nephew loves cheesecake so he got a kick out of the idea of eating it straight out of a jar. We also ordered the cornbread pain de perdu with figs. The dish looked rustic and pretty, but all the components didn’t seem to blend well together.

We also had the saffron rice pudding, which came in a clear glass boat. The pudding texture wasn’t as creamy as I liked but it was pretty.

Overall, I felt the dishes were as creative as I remembered, but I did feel the portion sizes seemed smaller, which makes it hard IMHO to have a filling meal. One of my nephew’s friends did say he was impressed by the complexity of flavors in each dish, so I was glad that the experience opened his eyes to something new.

The service was just as proficient and friendly as before. Although I found only a few things to be thrilled about in Fox’s current fall menu, I am still impressed by his creativity and details in presentation. But for a better value, it might be worth checking out Ubuntu for lunch when you can order the white pizza.

Update experience (previous 4.5 stars): Holding steady at 4.5 even though plates seem smaller

Ubuntu on Urbanspoon


foodhoe said...

Single guy, how muted and miserly those dishes look compared to when we went on that bright summery day... hah! I see you ordered figs.

Hungry Dog said...

I have been so curious about Ubuntu--somehow I just hardly ever get to Napa, and when I do, I want to go somewhere like Bouchon--uh, somewhere with meat, I guess. The dishes here seem incredibly creative and quite lovely, but they do look a little on the small side--that's disappointing.

SteamyKitchen said...

Hey! So I wanna make sure I meet you when I'm in SF! I'm a "healthy eater", so maybe these small plates wouldn't appeal to me. I like big plate food! ;-)

Carolyn Jung said...

Succulents must be the new in-thing for chefs. I remember Eric Ripert discovering them at Love Apple Farm with David Kinch on a recent episode of "Avec Eric.'' And I had them at my dinner at Coi last Saturday. Sorry, not blogging about that dinner. I didn't take notes, nor did I take photos. It was my anniversary dinner, so I left the "work implements'' at home for a change. ;)