Friday, August 15, 2008
Ubuntu: Biodynamic vegetable cuisine...worth the hype?
Where else but in California might one find a vegetarian restaurant featuring biodynamic fruits and vegetables (many grown in their own garden), a chef who formerly cooked at a Michelin two starred restaurant, and a yoga studio? Ubuntu is the restaurant, Jeremy Fox the chef, and the town of Napa, gateway to the Napa Valley, the setting for such an ambitious - and uniquely Californian - endeavor. Having already earned best of accolades in the San Francisco Chronicle, a #2 spot on NY Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni's top 10 list of 'restaurants that count,' and countless other fawning press, I was preparing myself for a truly transforming dining experience when I went with my family and girlfriend for dinner last week.
Upon entering Ubuntu, Natalie and I were greeted by a friendly manager, who noted our arrival and led us towards the bar as we waited for my parents to arrive. We ordered a bottle of 2007 Palmina Arneis, a snappy Piemonte by way of Santa Barbara white wine which had most of the requisite crisp green fruit flavors and bite to the finish which my favorite Italian Arneis wines show. While enjoying our wine, we took in the relaxed interior design, featuring a two-story high ceiling, exposed stones, handsome wooden flooring of alternating planks of multi-hued wood and a large, sturdy, attractive wooden communal dining table. Shortly thereafter, the parents arrived, we embraced and caught up, they sipped some Arneis, and we were shown to our table.
To start off we ordered all of the 'bites': salted marcona almonds coated in lavender sugar (savory, floral and sweet - delicious but perhaps best after dinner); castelvetrano olives covered in a 'carrot top pesto' (slightly carroty olives, which were fine); dickson ranch “regina” taggiasca olive oil and chickpea fries with herbs and romesco sauce (very tasty, a good way to sneak in something slightly more nutritious than the potato and still maintain the proper texture).
Following some deliberation and consultation with our waiter, we made our selections from the 'cool plates' and 'hot plates' portions of the menu, each featuring large appetizer portions of food, so it's probably best to order a couple of plates if you are hungry. We split four plates and two pizzas, which was plenty of food for the four of us. Greens, flowers, herbs, and roots was a delightfully fresh combination of Ubuntu garden grown lettuces, carrots, radishes and even tangy leaves of an edible succulent plant, dressed lightly in olive oil, lemon juice and salt. Just the type of salad I like, ingredients that cannot possibly be fresher, tossed with a judicious amount of olive oil and citrus. The light, crispy carta de musica blended fresh-picked greens (from Ubuntu's garden), lemon, rosemary, and trumpet chips with a tasty truffled pecorino (not a whole lot of truffle flavor, however). Lemon cucumbers with miso “bagna cauda” was a creative play on the Piedmontese specialty, while fregola (Sardinian pasta, similar to couscous) finished with corn pudding melon rind & friarelli pepper relish, with fried padron peppers fused Italian, Californian and Spanish flavors together admirably. Our two pizzas were decidedly Californian in style, featuring non-traditional toppings on a thin, flat crust lacking the savor and chew of a good Neapolitan crust. While the mushroom pizza bianco with bellwether ricotta was a favorite of everyone else at the table, I preferred the slightly unorthodox strawberry & basil pizza margherita with a 3-day strawberry soffrito, fresh mozzarella, and saba. My parents are generally very open-minded folks, but occasionally when it comes to food they need to be convinced. In other words I ordered this pizza against my dad's wishes, and he ended up thinking it was ok. The tang of the strawberries brought to mind a sun-dried tomato spiked pizza, though the delicate fruity sweetness reminded me that this was still a strawberry (not a tomato) sauce.
For dessert, since we were stuffed, we ordered a single vanilla bean cheesecake in a jar - rich vanilla flavor blended well with the creamy, airy textured cheesecake and sour cherries. It made me want to further explore more desserts the next time I go.
There is no doubt that Ubuntu is the Bay Area's, and perhaps the nation's, best vegetarian restaurant right now. Somehow, though, it did not have quite the impact or leave the imprint on my imagination that I expected. Maybe it was the wine list, through which I had to really dig to find something I would enjoy drinking. The old world selections here are obviously an afterthought, and do not represent top-notch, or even particularly good, producers. Where are the Loire wines? And German rieslings? Wines that should be a slam dunk with the cuisine are clearly absent. As far as the food is concerned, maybe I should have avoided the a la carte ordering approach, opting instead for the tasting menu? Would that have been the way to go? Regardless of the nit picking, I look forward to returning to Ubuntu, which has left such a strong impression on some of the nation's most respected food authorities, if just a slightly less strong impression on this reviewer.