new Things I Ate in Cambodia: Ubuntu: This is What Vegetarian Food Should Be

Monday, July 28, 2008

Ubuntu: This is What Vegetarian Food Should Be

Ubuntu Restaurant and Yoga Studio
1140 Main St
Napa, CA 94559
(707) 251-5656

Vegetarian restaurants generally don't evoke images of culinary grandeur. Vegetarian food is associated with tofu, brown rice, and distressing, gloppy Hippie Chow - not the kind of scrumptious, decadent cuisine that really stirs the soul.

To combat these notions, I present Ubuntu, Napa Valley's glorious new vegetarian restaurant. Although the restaurant may rather curiously be attached to a yoga studio, the wife and husband chefs (who met while cooking at Manresa) give the place enviable culinary chops. Furthermore, the space is simply beautiful: an open kitchen set next to a well-stocked bar, a huge communal table running down the center of the room. This friendly yet hip vibe suits the restaurant perfectly: Ubuntu serves high concept and delicious food at reasonable prices and replaces Haute Cuisine snobbery with a healthy dose of wonder at what can be done with vegetables.

On our recent visit, we decided to sit outside to enjoy the perfect summer evening. Our server brought us menus, and we were immediately confused and intruiged by the menu: Ubuntu serves completely unique food. We decided to fire away and pick whatever sounded interesting: this proved to be a very good strategy.

First up was the "carta da musica" with truffled pecorino, mushroom chips arugula, and a good splash of super high quality olive oil and saba. Carta de musica translates into "sheet music" referring to the flat and flaky nature of the bread, and this was great: think of the lighest, airiest just baked cracker you've ever had, topped with decadent, delicious pecorino cheese, peppery, sharp arugula, and unexpected, smoothly buttery fried mushroom chips. This is a simple dish and just plain perfect: transforming flat-bread into something light as air and at the same time satisfying.

We moved on to the grilled peach and french bean salad, topped with burrata cheese, basil, and pesto and basil stem vinegar. This was also excellent: freshy and slightly squeaky blanched beans, tossed in a pesto so fresh you could just about feel the basil. The burrata cheese was also delicious, adding a bit of dairy decadence to what could be a slightly insubstantial dish. The grilled peaches are pureed into a tangy and slightly rich spread that goes just perfectly with the pesto, cheese, and fresh green beans: a great and unusual combination. Grilled fruit needs to see more attention on American menus.

This simple looking ramekin contained one of the most delicious things I've eaten this year. The menu describes it as "cauliflower in a cast iron pot," and it's a complex dish: cauliflower is roasted in the oven with vadouvan curry powder, pureed with plenty of cream and butter, and served raw in a granular "couscous", accompanied with coriander and toast. It's a triumph: the smooth cauliflower is almost impossibly rich, and when juxtaposed with the spiced roast cauliflower and the smooth, pleasing crunch of the "couscous" is innovative. This dish is great in that it takes richness away from the realm of animal or dairy preparations and hands it over to a new source: the humble cauliflower. You know you're eating something marvelous when you pause every bite to comment on how damn delicious it is.

We hadn't intended to order dessert - we'd already hit Bouchon Bakery - but Ubuntu's food had blown us away so much that we had to give in. A good call: Ubuntu is doing amazing, amazing things with the sweet side of the menu. Here's roasted strawberries with lavender meringue, lemon cream, and frozen yogurt, presented creatively and gorgeously on a big old piece of slate. This was such an interesting thing to eat: the smooth, tangy lemon cream matched perfectly with the roasted, rich strawberries, creating an impromptu strawberry lemonade flavor - but don't forget the tangy, flash frozen yogurt medallions or the ethereal and sweet meringue chunks either. This is my kind of dessert: light, delicious as anything, and beautiful to behold. I have never wanted to lick a rock more.

Finally, we sampled the frosted feuilletine with bananas, keffir lime ice cream, and rum milk - the server described it to us as "frosted flakes for grownups" which sold us on the spot. And that it was: crunchy little bits of cookie, served with super-fresh banana and tangy, deeply interesting keffir lime ice cream: the way I wish my morning cereal was. The rum milk was served in a little ramiken on the side, allowing you to add it at will: a fun touch to an already interesting dessert. Excellent.

I really can't compliment Ubuntu enough. This restaurant is serving interesting, innovative and most importantly delicious food. Ubuntu also proves handily that thee is no deprivation inherent in vegetarian cuisine: vegetables in the proper hands can be just as deeply, primevally satisfying as meat, and just as pleasing to an avowed omnivore's tastes. I intend to come back as soon as possible to try everything on the menu and see what other surprises these chefs have in store for me. This is more then good food: this is interesting food, working at the edge of what's possible with vegetables and cuisine.

No comments: