During our second day trip to the Napa Valley, Marcus and I went to Ubuntu with Bill in the actual town of Napa. Unfortunately, Pam couldn't make it out with us, but I hope to return again with her next time I'm in town!
You may ask what kind of restaurant is housed in the same building with the same name as a yoga studio. In fact, you may have guessed correctly--Ubuntu is a vegetarian restaurant. Now, don't laugh. It's really not what you think--let me explain.
I first heard about Ubuntu via Frank Bruni, during a book signing at Barnes & Noble Lincoln Triangle back in the Fall of 2009. After briefly discussing his new memoir at the time, Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-time Eater, there was an audience Q&A in which someone asked him what his favorite restaurant was. He responded saying he couldn't name one favorite but instead listed noteworthy meals he has had in the last couple years. He briefly mentioned Ubuntu and how the vegetarian restaurant affiliated with a yoga studio blew he and his carnivore ways (as well as his doubtful preconceptions) out of the water, completely changing his appreciation for non-meat focused cuisine. I later found out he named Ubuntu as the second Best Restaurant in the U. S. Coast-to-Coast (i.e., excluding New York City) in 2008, after an early visit there that year.
I also remember having a conversation with Bill and Pam about Ubuntu prior to attending Mr. Bruni's book signing. Bill told me how it was a very transformative meal for him. His meal at Ubuntu totally changed his view of the common notion that vegetarian meals will always feel like it is missing something--that something being meat. He didn't even feel like anything key was missing from any of the dishes--they seemed complete as standalone courses. I am a lover of veggies, so I wanted to see what Chef Aaron London could do with vegetables and non-meat ingredients to change the minds of these two intense carnivores (i.e., my cousin, Bill, and Mr. Bruni).
Just a little background on Chef London. He attended the Culinary Institute of America and staged at the renowned kitchens of Daniel and Café Boulud in New York City, Restaurant Au Pied Cochon in Montréal, as well as Blue Hill at Stone Barns of Pocantico Hills in Upstate New York. After working at these establishments, Chef London traveled to Europe where he staged at a few restaurants along the way. During his time in Europe, his father mentioned the opening of Ubuntu, and seeing Ubuntu as a potentially his "dream restaurant," he headed back to the U. S. with the determination to work there. Finally landing a place in the kitchen at Ubuntu, he worked from line cook all the way up to executive sous chef followed by a promotion to chef de cuisine under Chef Jeremy Fox, the restaurant's former executive chef. Chef London remained chef de cuisine for about a year before assuming the lead role in the Ubuntu kitchen.
Inside Ubuntu. The name of the restaurant comes from ubuntu, "an ethic or humanist philosophy focusing on people's allegiances and relations with each other emphasizing community, sharing, and generosity." The word has its origin in the Zulu people of southern Africa and was introduced to Ubuntu owner/founder Sandy Lawrence during her work in South Africa over a fourteen-year period.
When given the option of sitting inside or outside, we opted for outdoor seating as the weather was gorgeous up in Napa.
We started with an order of the local Marcona almonds seasoned with homemade Vadouvan spice and sweet herbs. Vadouvan is a French spice derivative of Indian curry. This French derivative takes a variant of a masala and adds additional spices, such as shallots and garlic. We immediately became addicted to these Marcona almonds--they were freshly roasted with the Vadouvan spice and had an interesting oil drizzled lightly throughout. I don't believe I've had Vadouvan with anything before this meal--it has a surprising zinging initial taste that is rounded out after a few chews of the almonds when the shallots, garlic, and sweet herbs wash in. These almonds had an especially mesmerizing effect on Marcus. In fact, we had to ordered another so his craving for them could be sated, but I still think he's craving them! Highly recommend these to be shared among the table (or whoever gets to them first)! Warning though--addiction formation very likely!
I ordered a fresh squeezed lemonade. Very subtle lemon flavor and slightly sweet, which was a nice alternative to being drowned in sugar.
Marcus had the orange-carrot juice with a spiced rim. The juice was really refreshing with the added clean and natural flavors of carrot juice. The balance with citrus and root worked very well here. The spices on the rim of the glass livened up the juice a bit as well.
Bill had the Ubuntu vegan milkshake made using house-made almond milk, bananas, and spices. This drink was also refreshing, but in a heavier way, as almond milk was used as the shake's base. Very strong banana flavors and the spice gave the shake a little more depth than just nutty creaminess, which was great.
We got four courses to be shared family-style, all per suggestions by our server, who was both patient and helpful in our ordering process. Her first suggestion was the roast and raw asparagus with cool burrata coated with salt-n-pepper potato chip crumbs, potato skin puree, pine nut and currant soffrito, and Surrey arugula. Served on the colder side, the asparagus was tender and had a cool, roasted taste to it--not at all bitter. The cool burrata (i.e., fresh Italian cheese made from mozzarella and cream) was so incredibly soft, having that elastic creaminess of soft melted fresh mozzarella. The coat of salt-n-pepper potato chips was fun and added a crunchy contrasting texture to the burrata. This dish made for an interesting twist on the typical salad that you find on most menus--it wasn't overwhelming, but instead a light mixture of fresh and new flavors.
Our next course was today's fresh extruded Seville orange fregola (i.e., a Sardinian toasted pearl pasta) with Hakurei and Scarlet Damsel turnips, green garlic, and Parmesan broth. The fregola was a different texture of pasta than I am used to having. The fregola was slightly chewy with a hint of orange and moist from the Parmesan broth. It reminded me of a barley soup but the barley is softer and less grainy and the soup portion is mostly a sauce. I also thought the cheese and the Parmesan broth would be overpowering (as many dishes coated in Parmesan are for me), but it was just enough for a bit of flavor. I'd love to work with fregola in the future--it definitely has a lot of potential as a pearl pasta to be featured in many dinner options.
This dish had organic Arbuckle grits cooked with goat’s milk whey and blistered fava beans served with English peas confit in allium oil, pistachio, assorted mints, and lemon balm. The texture of the grits reminded me of freshly-milled polenta--creamy yet a little grainy. The fava beans and English peas gave the dish some color as well as some vegetable crunch. The lemon balm added a fresh zing to the overall taste of the dish. This was definitely one of my favorite lunch dishes we had.
We were still a little hungry after having shared the first three courses, so we ordered one last dish--the warm focaccia with truffled pecorino from Florence (shaved thinly on the side) and apricot-almond agrodolce served with ping-pong radish, crudité, Sylvetta arugula, and golden pea shoots. I wasn't sure how I'd take the truffled pecorino, so I requested it on the side. After Bill took a bite of the focaccia with a few shaved pieces of truffled pecorino and advised me to do the same because it made it that much better, I trusted his judgment, and I'm glad I did. It really made that much of a difference! Even before placing the cheese on top of the focaccia, you can certainly smell the wafting aroma of the truffles infused in the pecorino shavings. The shavings were soft, almost like air, that would meld right into the contents atop the focaccia, bringing all of the ingredients together to make a cohesive opened face sandwich. You could also taste the freshness of the other ingredients--as if they had just been picked!
Findings: Surprisingly enough, this lunch at Ubuntu was quite filling for the three of us. Marcus and I had a feeling that we'd leave wanting to grab a burger at In-N-Out or something to satisfy the remaining hunger we had anticipated on having upon leaving. Ubuntu really proved us wrong there. In Mr. Bruni's review of Ubuntu, he notes that he and his dining companion found it strange there wasn't "a grain of brown rice" or "tofu" to be found on the menu--the stereotypical ingredients that the general public believes to be found in these "alternative/vegetarian" restaurants. That's just it though--Ubuntu's forte. It is in the business of subtly converting these stereotypes and preconceptions into belief and trust that "meat" isn't essential to making a great meal; that there doesn't need to be "substitutions" (i.e., synthetic meat and the like) or "reductions" (i.e., taking out where meat typically would be) to do this--just really fresh produce and ingredients creatively fused and crafted. Even though it was a light lunch, I didn't feel hungry any more--just pleasantly full. Sitting outside in gorgeous weather added to the great lunch we had. Everything we ordered illustrated the potential that vegetables and non-meat ingredients have to create wonderful and delightful dishes without that feeling for omnivores (particularly carnivores) of a massive void in which the traditional meaty protein belongs. The service at Ubuntu is also noteworthy--our server was happy and willing to answer all of our questions about all menu items and provided many great recommendations. In fact, the four main courses we ordered were all thanks to her aptly chosen suggestions. My faith has been restored to the power of other ingredients besides traditional proteins holding their own. It's no wonder that Ubuntu was award with one Michelin star for 2011 ("a very good restaurant in its category"). So in summary, if you have trouble figuring out what to order, please at least opt for the marcona almonds, the orange-carrot juice, and the warm focaccia. You'd be crazy not to love those!
Also, thanks to Bill for taking us out to Ubuntu for lunch! We really enjoyed it!
Price point: $5-7 for each non-alcoholic drink, $7 for each bowl of almonds, $15-18 for each garden menu item.
--May 22, 2011
1140 Main Street
Napa, California 94559