Ubuntu – Napa, CA

It’s a yoga studio. It’s a vegetarian restaurant. It’s on the New York Times’ top ten list of places to eat in the US. Ubuntu defies stereotypes.

The menu looks deceptively healthy until I realize that there’s no tofu, brown rice or spongy meat substitutes. Apparently, the chef, Jeremy Fox, simply refuses to serve them; instead, he showcases the best local produce and makes no apologies for not serving meat.

The result must be the prettiest food I’ve ever eaten. Each dish is like a still life — flowers, leaves, fruits and seeds artfully arranged on a plate, a random combination of tastes and textures that blur the lines between starter, entree, and dessert. Most ingredients are served raw and many techniques are borrowed from raw food cuisine — for instance, slicing courgettes (zucchini) into thin fettucine-like ribbons and saucing them with a puree of the same vegetable.

As for the taste, some work…

  • The amuse bouche of melon and lemongrass soup is silky and redolent of carrots (even though the menu says it’s watermelon) and citrus. The basil seeds are enclosed in a tapioca-like substance and have an interesting mouth feel.
  • The freshly picked english peas are delicious with the crunchy bits of macadamia and shavings of white chocolate. The shell consomme is a very pale green water flavored with the very same pods that once contained the peas. I’ve never eaten anything like this dish. What a fresh idea!

… some don’t:

  • My husband thinks the succulents that came with the zucchini smell funky. I don’t share his view but recall thinking ‘so this is what cactus tastes like’ and, more importantly, ‘what the heck is a vadouvan spice panisse?!’
  • The vegetable petit fours feature linzer tortes (cookies with red preserves in the middle) that taste like cardboard. It’s as if the pastry chef had to make a concession to the vegan crowd and a) use whole wheat flour b) pass on the butter.

By the end of the meal, my husband gives the thumbs down. As far as he’s concerned, Ubuntu already lost points the moment he saw nothing but plants on the menu. I’m a little more conflicted. It started out so well. Wasn’t I gushing at the first mouthful? Maybe things fell apart when I spent more time figuring out what I was eating rather than enjoying it.

James Beard Menu:

watermelon & lemongrass soup , coconut milk, basil seed caviar, mint, nasturtiums

flatbread with rocket, parmesan, ceci

english peas in shell consomme, macadamia, white chocolate, chocolate mint

grilled peach & french beans panzanella, burrata, basil stem dressing, deanie’s brioche

courgettes & succulents, vadouvan spice panisse

anson mills grits with borage pistou, capucine cappucino, and amaranth

coq au vin of spring vegetables, deep fried somaine de la chance egg with Lion’s Run bordelaise

lemon verbena cheesecake in a jar, black fruits with honey and bee pollen

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~ by Jaded Fork on August 6, 2008.

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