Friday, November 11, 2011

Ubuntu Restaurant

I had trouble planning out where to eat the day after an expectedly epic dinner at The French Laundry. I felt that wherever I went to the next day would pale in comparison. So with serious caution and hesitation, my family and I decided to go to Ubuntu.

Ubuntu is currently headed up by Aaron London. With a signature topknot, Chef London cooks up a completely vegetarian menu featuring fresh ingredients with unexpected flavor combinations. Very rarely does a vegetarian restaurant get much hype. Even more rarely does a vegetarian restaurant, with a yoga studio on the second floor, might I add, get any recognition by Michelin. But Ubuntu did, does, and will continue to get that recognition.

With my relatively recent love for vegetarian restaurants fostered during my time in the Northwest, I had high hopes for Ubuntu. I was also hoping the strictly vegetarian menu would balance out the excessive tasting menu from the night before.

The restaurant was surprisingly empty for lunch. During the hour-and-a-half my family spent at the restaurant, we saw only three other occupied tables. I'm sure dinner services are much more lively, but the lunch scene felt much more intimate, as if we were invited by London to dine in his home.

Once the six of us settled into our seats, our server gave us some time to peruse the menu. We spent a good ten minutes debating the best way to tackle the menu as a group. The server came over and saved the day when she offered to compile a fixed, six-course family style lunch. Done and done.

The meal started with their featured snacks of the day. First up were Marinated 'Castelvetrano' Olives. The olives were a vivid green, weren't too salty, and had a mild and soft flavor. They came tossed in a carrot top pesto that made these olives incredibly addictive. The olives even looked like they were sweating beads of deliciousness. I could've eaten a huge bowl of these by themselves and just called it a meal. But I couldn't. Because sharing is caring.

The second snack was some Local 'Marcona' Almonds. Crunchy, oily, and crispy, these almonds came tossed in some homemade Vadouvan spice and some sweet herbs. Vadouvan spice is a combination that usually contains shallots, garlic, onions, cardamom, and curry leaves that is often compared to cumin or Indian curry (yeah, I had to look that up). The spice made the almonds incredibly savory and flavorful, while the sweet herbs brought some necessary counterbalancing. I also could have just eaten a basket of these and called it a meal. But I didn't. Because I was too busy smiling at the fact that I'd already experienced some amazing food before the first course even came out.

Our first course was Stewed Chickpeas a lá Catalan. Seemingly boring, outrageously delicious. The delicious, soft chickpeas shone through the rich, deceptively meaty romesco sauce, and came with a slowly poached farm egg and 'Surrey' arugula. Not the most interesting dish, but really, really good nonetheless. Interest to come.

The first course was accompanied by some fluffy sourdough and creamy, salted butter.

Second was a Summer Squash and 24 Hour 'Ox Heart' Carrots in a Cool Salad. For a family-sized portion, this massive dish was surprisingly beautiful. This was a characteristic that would continue throughout the meal. The rim of the plate was adorned with an amazing assortment of colors and flavors. The heart of the dish rested in a yellow thai curry sauce that brought the summer squash and melt-in-your-mouth carrots to another level. The cold temperature against the curry flavor profile played some mind tricks, while a hazelnut-coconut crumble and some basil and mint did their jobs to balance out the traditionally warm flavors of curry.

Next up was a Pole Bean and Smoked Cucumber Salad with Cool Burrata and Miso Radish. The pole beans were to die for. They were perfectly crunchy and succulent and the thin strips of cucumber were brought to life through their newly acquired smokiness. The miso radish brought brightness and depth of flavor, which balanced perfectly with the powerful clouds of fennel. The 'Flavorosa' pluots was just sweet enough to melt into the creamy burrata and the tarragon dressing was a flavorful play on a sprinkle of herbs. The flavors were mind-blowing and the freshness of all the ingredients was amazing.

The third course was what I would consider the first of two entrées. I say entrées because these courses were noticeably heavier and more filling. These courses slapped any thoughts I had of vegetarian food not being filling or satisfying. The heavier of the two was the Warm Focaccia with Eggplant, Ground Cherry, and Espelette Capponatta. The focaccia was soft and gooey, which was further goo-ified by the creamy ricotta and the deliciously cooked eggplant kicked up with some spice and bronze fennel. The ground cherry added some rich sweetness and some pickled 'Eisley wax' peppers added some crunchy texture and needed acidity. While this was probably the heaviest dish of the meal, I found myself constantly spooning for more.

Fourth was a homey bowl of Arbuckle Grits Cooked with Goat's Milk Whey, and Peach-Pistachio-Basil Bud Soffrito. This reminded me of a dish I recently had at Los Angeles' Red Medicine, but with a completely different flavor profile. The grits were infused with the delicious tartness and funkiness of goat's milk, but wasn't overpowering. The grits themselves were as creamy and thick as a well-tended polenta. The peach-pistachio-basil bud soffrito was a perfect combination of sweet, nutty, and herbal, which all played well off of the acidity and sharpness of pickled green tomatoes and the potent, almond-based nuttiness of noyaux oil. This dish was just heavy enough to follow up the focaccia and finish out the savories without making my stomach explode.

The dessert course was a welcomingly light and refreshing Silverado Trail Strawberry Pudding. At first glance, I didn't see any of the advertised pudding. All I saw was a green mound of shaved ice. My first spoonful, and ten subsequent spoonfuls, begged to differ. The green ice was a delicious cucumber granita that could have lived a life of its own. But sitting underneath the granita was a perfectly tart rhubarb jam balanced by an absurdly creamy, yet light, base of pudding. I couldn't believe the cloud-like pudding could support the weight of the cucumber granita, but it did, and as the flavors got to know each other in my mouth, I couldn't stop reaching for more. This was easily the favorite of the table, even though it was the dessert course. Really amazing stuff.

Service was as focused as the food, but was also casual and comforting. Everyone was friendly and professional throughout the meal and the pace of the meal was perfect. At the heart of the experience was a sincere communication of the restaurant's namesake: Ubuntu. Archbishop Desmond Tutu described this African philosophy, saying, "Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can't exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can't be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality – Ubuntu – you are known for your generosity. We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole World. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity." I couldn't help but feel that philosophy flow through the restaurant's dishes and staff's personality.

After meeting the chef and singing our praises, we left the restaurant with huge smiles on our faces, ready to tackle the rest of the day with a re-centered respect for food, health, and appropriately, each other.

Ubuntu Restaurant
1140 Main Street
Napa, CA 94559
(707) 251-5656

GET: Anything. It's all delicious.


  1. Amazing. I was so frustrated at work today because the pictures wouldn't load on my work computer?? Anyway, I want that pudding.

    Also: "No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as a manor of thy friends or of thine own were; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee." Ubuntu = John Donne's Meditation XVII.

  2. Gah! Are they working now?

    Also, oh snap. You just dropped some knowledge.


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