review: the united colors of napa…
Every now and then, a restaurant experience up-ends my life in the best possible way.
My meal at ubuntu is the latest to join that short list of memorable meals.
Undeniably, ubuntu is a vegetarian restaurant. People seem to make sure that’s the first thing you know about it. No meat or meat derivatives are used in any of Chef Jeremy Fox’s or his wife Deanie’s cooking.
But ubuntu is not just an extraordinary vegetarian restaurant.
ubuntu is an extraordinary restaurant full stop.
I was, for a time, skeptical.
The restaurant’s praises have been sung from coast to coast.* Everyone I know who has eaten there emotes excessively about it. Even friends abroad have claimed it to be the best of the Bay Area.
Quite a few perennially praised restaurants I’ve visited have turned out too good to be true.
ubuntu, thankfully, did not.
Fox and his team are producing some of the most refreshing food I’ve encountered in a long time.
It’s not as weighty or serious as the food at – say – Manresa, where Fox had worked for a few years (ironically, he was celebrated for his whole pig dinners there). The food at ubuntu doesn’t feel as precise.
Fox’s style is more carefree and impressionistic. His food is organic (in more than one way) and free-rambling, very much a living conversation dictated by the garden.
With hints of Michel Bras (Fox offers his own version of the famous “gargouillou”), ubuntu is more approachable than l’Arpege yet far more interesting and unique than Blue Hill at Stone Barns. It’s a lot cheaper too. Most of the à la carte dishes are situated in the lower teens. I don’t recall a single lunch item coming within hitting range of the $20 mark.
My recent meal at ubutnu in late May was a milestone in my dining life.
I pause to disclose two important factors:
First, a bias: if I were to be abstractly characterized as an animal, vegetable, or cheese according to my preferences, I would be a vegetable.
I love vegetables.
While I find it absurd that Michael Pollan’s now-famous, seven-word catch phrase, “Eat food. Mostly vegetables. Not too much.” needs to be a cultural revelation, I have to remind myself – having been born, bred, and raised in the Heartland – that many people in this country (and around the world) do not approach diet in this way. Sadly, many aren’t able to approach diet in this way.
My upbringing involved gardening and an emphasis on vegetables. (Does that make my parents enlightened?)
So, know that my enthusiasm for vegetables is probably much higher than the average omnivore’s.
My second disclosure: I went to ubuntu with two friends who are well-acquainted with Jeremy and Deanie Fox. One of them called ahead and arranged for Chef Fox to assemble a tasting for us.
Here is what the kitchen prepared for us. Items in CAPS are from the ubuntu organic, biodynamic garden. Inevitably, our wandering eyes got the best of us, and a couple of menu items were supplemented (with a kind accommodation of the kitchen) into the progression, neither of which managed to find their way onto our bill (*comp disclosure*). CLICK HERE to see all of the photos, or on each course for the individual photos.
(enriched with NETTLE, BORAGE condimento, foraged SORRELS, BLOSSOMS, etc…)
spring BRASSICAS and mushrooms a la grecque
(LION’S RUN “bordelaise,” BORDEAUX SPINACH, preserved lemon)
2x shucked peas and GOLDEN SHOOTS in a consommé of the shells
(white chocolate, ‘CHOCOLATE’ MINT, macadamia, PURPLE PEAS in the pod)
seven degrees of ‘FORONO’ BEETS
(hazelnut “soil,” avocado, FICOIDE GLACIALE, rhubarb pickle)
carta da musica, our crisp Sardinian flatbread
(topped with ubuntu SPRING GARDEN, truffled pecorino)
‘PURPLE HAZE’ CARROT crudité with mimolette
(spiced “crumble” of dried carrot pulp, peppery NASTURTIUM salad)
‘REDHEAD’ RADISH stew, roasted & raw
(LEMONGRASS & creme fraiche broth, SOI RABE, sweet HERBS)
a savory expression of ‘ORION’ FENNEL
(scented with our vadouvan, ‘DELFINO’ CILANTRO, local citrus)
9th Course (Supplemented)
cauliflower in a cast iron pot
(roast-puree-raw, our vadouvan, ‘DELFINO’ CILANTRO, brown butter toast)
arbuckle grits, our goat ricotta and the whey, “midnight moon”
(napa strawberry soffrito, FRAISE DE BOIS, assorted BASILS)
11th Course (Supplemented)
strawberry pizza “margherita”
(napa strawberry soffrito, burrata, assorted BASILS, saba)
a sweet expression of ‘ORION’ FENNEL
(the garden’s first 2009 HONEY, yogurt whipped with MEYER LEMON)
the SPRING FLOWER POT
(LAVENDER custard, bee pollen crumble, rhubarb)
Chef Fox unlocks the world of vegetables with astounding facility. He sees in vegetables what the common do not and, in a manner that’s easily digestible (mind the painful pun), brilliantly passes his insight along to his diners through his cooking.
For example, he draws a seemingly intuitive, yet unexpected connection between the natural, caramel sweetness in carrots and Mimolette (“‘PURPLE HAZE’ CARROT crudite with mimolette”). The marriage seemed so obvious (I mean, there IS a relative known as “carrot cheese”), I was left wondering why I hadn’t thought of or encountered the couple before. I loved the fact that the entire presentation was edible, from the log-like carrot stand to the baby carrots “sprouting” from it – a more organic way of presenting vegetables than at Blue Hill at Stone Barns.
The radish – that ever-awkward root – Fox makes noble by roasting them and serving them with an intensely fragrant and spicy broth (“‘REDHEAD’ RADISH stew, roasted & raw”).
Of all the dishes we had, this one left the deepest impression.
The thick broth was fragrant with lemongrass, herbs, and lime zest; complex; packed with flavor; and boldly spiked with an aggressive heat that was cleverly balanced out by a quenelle of crème fraiche that slowly dissolved into the soup. It was like Southeast Asia distilled into a bowl. I asked Fox if any thickener was used in the broth; he said there wasn’t. I was a little surprised given its viscosity.
The interaction between the flavors in the broth and the roasted radishes brought out savory, sweet, and bitter flavors I never knew existed in radishes.
And nettles, that obstreperous spring weed, Fox tames by using it to enrich a creamy, savory sage velouté (“vellutata selvaggio“). That intensely flavorful soup – our first course – was brightened with fresh sorrel and borage.
My online colleague ChuckEats has questioned the seriousness of some of Fox’s food. Finding them “boring,” he discounts Fox’s pizzas and pastas as “standard, safe vegetarian fare.” He considers others, like the beet “’blood sausage’ slider,” as retarding meat-mimickry that restrains the restaurant’s potential.
While I agree with ChuckEats that the most magical dishes were the ones he described as showcasing “Napa seasons,” I disagree with his outlook with regard to the rest of the food. (And here I must note that I am not disagreeing with ChuckEats’s assessment of the specific dishes that he had, for (a) he has been to ubuntu many more times than I and, therefore, is much more qualified to come to conclusions that I dare not, and (b) I have not had many of the dishes he may be referring to, including the beet “blood sausage.”)
For one, I don’t think that the recreation of the meat-eating experience with vegetables necessarily does a disservice to their estimation.
Meat mockery (as in imitating) is a highly respected form of art in some culinary traditions. The Chinese Buddhist monks, for example, are celebrated for their ability to recreate the texture, taste, and physical appearance of meat with vegetation. Done well, mock chicken and mock pork products are some of the most mind-bending and mouth-watering creations I’ve had. The seamlessness of the conceit is truly amazing. For those who crave meat, yet are anchored and committed to a belief that prohibits killing animal life, it’s an incredible gift.
Perhaps in the American culture, which seems to place a higher value on meat, such exercises are viewed as degrading; treating the conceit as a pitiful attempt to masquerade something lesser as its nobler kin. You’d think it’d be the other way around – that valuing vegetables more would make the conceit seem like an insult. But it’s not: the conceit always “seems” cooler the other way around: beet blood sausages get dismissed, but Kobe beef stuffed with foie gras and truffles on a sesame bun gets applauded; walnut mushroom loaves meet upturned noses (I’ve had very good ones), yet “scoops” of chopped salmon on a conical tuiles are celebrated. When something we deem ritzy slums, it’s considered cute. When something we see as prosaic tries to be something other than it is, we laugh. That seems hardly fair.
It is true that not all of the dishes I encountered struck me as having the sophistication of that radish dish. And I concede that ChuckEats is probably right in hedging that some of the more recognizable fare helps the restaurant attract and keep the less-adventurous eaters. At the bottom line, ubuntu is a business.
But none of the dishes I tried seemed like throw-away compromises or accommodations. Rather, I found them to be wonderfully made-over classics.
For example, polenta is a standard vegetarian dish. But Jeremy Fox’s polenta (“arbuckle grits….”) is anything but standard.
He uses Matthew and Erin Sweet’s stone-milled, locally grown corn. He asks them to grind it with a coarser pass than what the Sweet’s normally use for retail. But you’d never know it. Fox whips in homemade goats’ milk ricotta, whey, and “Midnight Moon” cheese, a slightly aged goats’ milk cheese from Cypress Grove. Mounted with butter, the polenta is smooth, velvety, and surprisingly light.
You’d think it’d be a bit funky with the goat dairy (not that I would mind, I like a little funk). But it’s not.
At first glance, the dish seemed petty and precious, dotted with tiny fraises du bois and pink petals. A tangy quenelle of what I imagine to be crème fraîche nestled to one side. A line of pink petals ran along the other side, strung along with shavings of Midnight Moon.
But layered beneath the polenta was an unexpectedly intense, sophisticated, and savory-sweet strawberry sofritto studded with impossibly soft, braised pine nuts. It had a back-of-the-throat after-tang that favored reduced balsamic, yet a mesmerizing, complex, and savoriness that compelled me to return to it.
And this is what Fox does best. He coaxes flavors out of vegetables one never knew they had. He ingeniously shows you how interesting and wonderful they can be in different contexts. He proves their versatility by making them great in something as commonplace as a pizza – the “strawberry pizza ‘margherita’” – and as elegant as the “2x shucked peas and GOLDEN SHOOTS in a consommé of the shells,”
I’ll admit that the “strawberry pizza ‘margherita’” wouldn’t be my first or even fourth pick from the ubuntu menu if I were to return. But that’s more a function of my tastes than the worth of the pizza itself. Was it a throw-away crowd pleaser? A pizza is almost guaranteed to cast a wider net than many of the other items on the ubuntu menu, but it certainly wasn’t a second-class citizen because of it.
This pizza paralleled the arbuckle grits format almost one-for-one. Instead of goat ricotta, burrata; instead of grits, crust. In this “Margherita,” Fox cleverly trades tomato sauce for that same strawberry sofritto that came with the polenta (remember, we asked for this supplement, so the duplicity was by our design, not the chef’s). The soffrito worked incredibly well, and, I might say, was an improvement on the old marinara.
While the concept and flavors were great – especially the drizzling of saba, which was a brilliant accent to the strawberry – the pizza faltered on other points for me. As far as the Margherita triumvirate is concerned, it wasn’t very balanced: the cheese (burrata, but I’m almost positive some mozzarella was necessarily a part of it) suffocated the sauce, which was the true star, and there wasn’t enough basil. And the crust was too thick for me. (I acknowledge that someone who likes doughier crusts would probably take well to this pizza).
In places, it was bread-like. Given a thinner, crisper chassis and a more thoughtful application of the cheese, this would be one stellar pie in my book.
Even so, I wouldn’t deduct points from ubuntu’s (figurative) scorecard for offering this pizza.
The “2x shucked peas…,” on the other hand, was nature denuded. It featured a magnificent bowl of silky, double-shucked peas accompanied by golden pea shoots, purple snaps and shucked, but unhulled peas. Toasted bits of macadamia nuts, chocolate mint leaves, and finely shaved white chocolate garnished the peas, and a clear pea consommé made from the shells was poured tableside, along with a drizzle of emerald-green mint oil.
This dish stood at a crossroad in the garden. Fox not only celebrated a traditionally successful marriage – peas and mint – but playfully added to it an unexpected third element: chocolate mint. Fox mirrors nature – subtly – with shavings of white chocolate and a drizzle of mint oil. The white chocolate provided a faint touch of creaminess that steers this dish away from being too watery. Toasted and chopped macadamia nuts, another white chocolate friend, provided textural contrast, along with golden pea shoots, crisp purple snaps, and meaty, unhulled peas.
Beet tartare might not be the most creative or original thought anymore – its meat-mimicking witticism is, perhaps, a bit outdated (it’s actually one of my favorite recipes from Vongerichten’s “Cooking at Home with a Four-Star Chef). But Fox uses it to draw a comparison in “seven degrees of ‘FORONO’ BEETS,” a colorful rock gardenscape of beets that studied the root vegetable’s anatomy and showcased it in various stages of cooking. Cross-sectioned, halved lengthwise, pureed, chopped and molded, and shaved and fried to a crisp, the root vegetables were garnished with their own green tops – Fox’s “nose to tail” background translated to the vegetable: green-to-root.
To complete the landscape, the beets rested on a bed of hazelnut “soil.” Moist, damp, and flecked with crunchy, gritty bits approximating sand, its likeness to earth was uncanny and delicious at once.
Fox takes a similar approach with fennel – serving it head to toe – in “savory expression of ‘ORION’ FENNEL.” I counted at least four forms of the vegetable on this plate: the fronds, shaved raw fennel, roasted fennel, and what I call “fennel falafels”: little deep fried nuggets of what seemed like a mix of minced fennel and ground chickpeas.
The entire dish reverberated with vadouvan spice, whose musk was countered by cool, creamy labneh, grassy delfino, and suprêmes of citrus. Orange and musk, why or how it works, I have not a clue. But it does, and wonderfully so. I recall having a salad involving oranges and toasted cumin in North Africa as a child that first taught me this combination. I never forgot it.
The deliciousness of this dish far surpassed whatever higher-level dialogue someone might want to make of it.
The same might be said of Deanie Fox’s desserts. Her answer to the chef’s “savory expression of ‘ORION’ FENNEL” was “a sweet expression of ‘ORION’ FENNEL” that featured honey ice cream and lemony whipped yogurt, using fennel fronds and candied fennel as an accent. It was playful and accessible, as was “the SPRING FLOWER POT,” a clay flower pot filled with creamy, smooth, and subtly-infused lavender custard layered with bee pollen crumble (think graham cracker crust). It’s topped with a thick blanket of whipped cream and crowned with a palette of edible flowers. The arresting presentation aside – the flower pots were nestled waist-high in garden greens – it wasn’t perspective-altering, necessarily. But it was pot-lickingly delicious.
And isn’t deliciousness what we ultimately seek anyway? When it comes to vegetables, a whole class and category of food that many treat as an afterthought to meat and fault for being boring, isn’t satisfaction crucial?
True: a few of Fox’s dishes seemed to target gustatory pleasure more than intellectual stimulation. But is that such a bad thing?
Sometimes, you want easy comfort, like the “cauliflower in a cast iron pot.” Though it’s the restaurant’s most popular dish, Chef Fox did not include this dish on our tasting menu (this was one of our supplements). I now know why: As the pizza was to the polenta, so this was to the fennel dish; same idea and flavors paired with a different vegetable. The pot of porridge-like cauliflower purée contained different forms of cauliflower, including raw, shaved and roasted cauliflower florets. Like the fennel dish, it was spiced with vadouvan and garnished with suprêmes of citrus and fresh defino. It came with a stack of crunchy “brown butter toasts” on which the purée was meant to be spread.
Though I adore cole crops – especially cauliflower (which is why I asked to supplement this course) – I enjoyed the fennel dish much more. Whereas the fennel contributed to the flavors in that dish, the cauliflower here was overwhelmed by vadouvan and choked by the richness of the dish; there was barely any cauliflower flavor or texture. Not far off from potato puree, this was comfort food that – on the warm spring day that it was – probably would have been better as a one-bite amuse bouche. Tasty though it might have been, it was too rich for the three of us to finish as a shared dish in a multi-course progression (further reinforcing my belief that, if you trust him/her, the chef will almost always make better choices than you will). And, after a bite or two, I didn’t feel that much more could be had from it.
Likewise, my love of crucifers and mustards would suggest that I would have loved the “spring BRASSICAS and mushrooms a la grecque,” our second course. But it fell a little flat for me. Like the cauliflower in the “cauliflower in a cast iron pot,” the purple and green broccoli in this course were barely audible. The mushrooms à la Grecque were the best part, though sadly, they completely back-seated the rest of the flavors, including the Bordelaise and preserved lemon, which I was looking forward to tasting. This was the weakest course of our meal.
Some have questioned ubuntu’s presentation style – noting that plates seemed needlessly crowded with flowers and foliage and concerned that the blossoms on the plates might interfere with flavors. I will concede that the abundance of flora on our plates was a bit superfluous.
At times – as with the “carta da musica, our crisp Sardinian flatbread” – it was a little hard to ignore. That crisp, round flatbread – spiked with a kick of spicy heat – was mounded high with a green salad dotted with a rainbow of colors (it had a cowlick!). That’s the only course where I thought that form hijacked function. With thick ribbons of truffle-infused cheese weaving throughout the lettuce, the composition was impossible to disassemble without making a complete mess. As eye-fetching as it was, it might have been more practical to serve the salad in a bowl with the crisp flatbread on top, like a giant sbrisolona crouton (thinner, of course).
But, for the most part, all of the foliage was harmless. I’m very sensitive to gimmickry, and none of it struck me as gimmicky. The flowers didn’t detract from the flavors of the dishes. In most cases, they were complementary. The food was so good that the presentation was just a pretty thing to stop and smell along the way.
Service at ubuntu was a highlight. One doesn’t normally expect such detailed knowledge and professionalism in the front of the house at such a casual restaurant. It’s friendly, laid-back, but extremely focused.
Of course, it being Napa, the wine selection at ubuntu ought to be exceptional. But I really can’t say – I didn’t have any wine. All I can tell you is that they offer wines by the bottle, the glass, and “tastes” – half-glasses so you can assemble your own pairings. However, I reveled in their “sake tasting” ($17), a flight of sakes in 2-ounce pours: Akitabare “Koshiki Junzukuri” Junmai, Dewazukura “Dewasansan” Junmai Ginjo, and Chikurin “Karoyaka” Junmei Ginjo. While I heavily favored the salty minerality of the “Koshiki Junzukuri” for drinking (it paired especially well with the peas), the floral “Dewasansan” paired very well with the beet, radish, and fennel courses. The “Karoyaka” was my least favorite to sip. However, sweet and melon-like with a hint of pine, it paired wonderfully with the strawberry soffrito, making it my choice with the grits and the pizza.
Pacing, for the most part, was steady.
But long pauses – especially between dessert courses – which might normally have been irksome, were welcomed (we had a lot of food, and, we tossed in two additional supplements for them to make, including a pizza).
Our 12:30 p.m. arrival time left us walking out near 5 p.m., and I relished every minute of it. Jeremy and Deanie Fox joined us, briefly, after our meal for a chat.
Without a doubt, ubuntu is one of the most exciting restaurants I’ve visited this year. It revived me. Even with the swelling numbers of “farm-to-table” restaurants in the U.S., there really is no other restaurant I’m aware of that is doing the same type of food as ubuntu, not to mention with this high level of thought and care.
Hopefully, my regular readers know that this is a shill-free blog. I’ve made my disclosures; do what you will with them. If, for whatever reason, you don’t visit ubuntu, just know that you may be missing out on one of the best restaurants in the U.S. right now. I’m already planning my return.
Executive Chef Jeremy Fox
1140 Main Street
Napa, California 94559
* Frank Bruni of the New York Times named it one of the 10 best new restaurants in America. The James Beard Foundation also conferred the same recognition, nominating ubuntu for their Best New Restaurant Award this past year along with four others (Bazaar, Corton, L20, and momofuku ko, which won).