Ubuntu, Napa

March 23, 2011

Ubuntu is a Zulu humanist philosophy selected by Sandy Lawrence as the name of the restaurant and yoga studio of which she is the founder and owner. Her time living in South Africa had made her familiar with this ethic of interconnectedness.

Under its first executive chef, Jeremy Fox, and his pastry chef wife, Deanie, Ubuntu quickly became famous among foodies after its opening in 2007. He brought skills learned as chef de cuisine under David Kinch at Manresa. But they left a year ago and Ubuntu’s then chef de cuisine, Aaron London, took charge. As Fox had become quite a celebrity, the food gossips predicted the demise of Ubuntu‘s cult status, but it seems that London has succeeded in convincing at least some of them of his talents. Linda and I went for lunch on March 5, 2011.

Sandy Lawrence is not vegetarian, but she wanted Ubuntu to feature the produce of the extensive garden on her nearby property and to reflect the philosophy for which it is named. Neither meat nor fish is used; eggs, dairy products and honey are included, but can be selected out by vegans.

The restaurant is in a restored old building on the edge of downtown Napa. 

In the center of the dining room is a long, wooden communal table with smaller tables around the sides.

Down the left side is a long counter serving as a bar and dining counter. In the back of the dining room, you can see the open kitchen and, above it, the upstairs yoga studio.

The open kitchen seems very well organized.

All of the items shown in the menu descriptions below in CAPITAL LETTERS are grown in the restaurant’s garden. In summer this includes 95% of the ingredients used, but it is necessarily less in early March.

Bread from a nearby bakery and butter were served. We started with two little glasses of
‘hakurei’ TURNIP velouté, lemon oil, SHUNGIKU

Hakurei turnips are an early maturing sweet Japanese salad variety. The Chinese herb is of the chrysathemum family. The rich soup’s flavor was fresh and earthy getting us off to a good start.

The lunch menu offered a small, but adequate, number of courses. Our waiter was very helpful in answering questions about them. We made our selections, all for the two of us to share, and ordered a bottle of 2009 Loring Wine Company, Gary’s Vineyard, Pinot Noir. It was good, went well with the food and was quite drinkable despite its young age.

Our first plate was
an ubuntu steam bun stuffed w/burrata and coated with SUNCHOKE crumble
SUNCHOKE tostones, winter citrus marmalade, MASHUA, baby LETTUCES

The bun is filled with burrata, a shell of mozzarella, filled with a mozzarella and cream mixture, coated with crumbs of  Jerusalem artichokes and steamed. The dish was interesting, but didn’t seem to have any coherence. 

The second plate was 
the garden SNAKE; lightly dressed GREENS, LEAVES, FLOWERS, ROOTS,
‘arbequina’ olive oil, HERBS, soil, truffled pecorino

This was excellent. I thought it was better than the similar dish at Manresa two days before. The greens were picked very small. They had a good mix of slightly bitter, slightly sweet or just crunchy. The julienned roots added a lot of needed variety. The “soil” is dehydrated mushrooms and hazelnuts, giving an earthy tinge to everything.  The cheese and the small amount of olive oil add just enough moisture. It is all subtle enough that the truffle in the pecorino is evident. The salad is large, so we ate half of it and saved the other half to eat as the meal developed.

Next came
rustic rancho gordo ‘yellow eye’ bean stew, HOJA SANTA

This had an assertive flavor and should have been served last of the savory courses. The various herbs were present, but submerged. The carrot tops are part of Ubuntu‘s philosophy of using all of the vegetables, including the peels, stems, leaves etc in some way. The croutons were particularly good.

today’s fresh extruded pasta: GARDEN infused fiore
artichokes in various preparations, caramelized grapefruit, ‘midnight moon’

The fresh pasta swirls were served somewhat overcooked with nice garnishes of artichoke. The bits of caramelized grapefruit were essential to add needed zing. The grated cheese added depth. A very good combination.

The last savory plate was
organic arbuckle grits, cooked with goat’s milk whey and finished with sharp cheddar
goat’s ricotta and FENNEL frond beignets, salsa negra, CRUDITÉ

The rich, mushy grits had a nice flavor enhanced by the goat’s milk whey and sharp cheddar. The crisp beignets and crudités added excellent textural contrasts.

The first dessert was
‘fuji’ apples, slowly cooked in caramel, hazelnut
fennel sorbet, fennel pollen cake, candied orange peel

The flavors here were nice, but they didn’t offer the needed complementary contrasts. The textures, likewise, were all too similar.

The second dessert was 
celery root; smooth, crispy and glazed
toffee date cake, candied macadamia

This was a bit too sweet for me and suffered the same weaknesses as the first dessert.

I finished with an “equator blend” espresso

Rich and very good.

Despite my criticisms, we came away feeling that we had enjoyed a very good meal. It certainly had little to do with what is commonly considered to be “vegetarian” cuisine, which tries to emulate meat without meat. I think that it suffered a lot from the late winter season when the produce of the garden is limited. The Garden Snake and the turnip soup were in season and the most succesful dishes.

Although the 30-year-old chef grew up in nearby Sonoma, he has worked at Arpège, which serves the world’s best vegetable dishes, but they are less complicated than Ubuntu‘s. He has also worked at La Chassagnette, the first “all organic” restaurant to receive a Michelin star. It has an enormous garden in the benign climate of the Camargue.

I wish we could go back to Ubuntu some time in September, but that seems unlikely. In the meantime we will look forward to reading how it succeeds in the coming years.



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