This week I was lucky enough to make a return visit to Ubuntu, the Napa valley's excellent and innovative vegetarian restaurant. I am usually an avowed meat-a-tarian but Ubuntu could make a convert out of anyone: incredibly full and exciting flavors are somehow conjured up out of seemingly lowly vegetables, rendering pork fat and schmaltz oddly superfluous. Head chef Jeremy Fox is trying to prove that meat is by no means necessary to produce high-concept and highly delicious food, and from my perspective, he's succeeding. Food at Ubuntu is carefully thought out, carefully executed, and beautifully designed, but retains its soul: this isn't quite molecular gastronomy but it is still food transmogrified into high and exciting art.
What I am trying to say is you should really eat here.
We began with a lovely salad of light fried sunchokes and what I believe was a brussel sprout/choke' puree underneath, accompanied by microgreens and some exquistely small white radishes. This is a nice, thoughtful composed salad and a good way to start a meal here - one advantage of Ubuntu is that portions are small enough that one can order just about the entire menu (and you will want to.)
Next was homemade fregola in a "french onion" broth, accompanied by quenelles of sweet onion and leek ash and a touch of parmesan. This had the nice earthy chewy flavors of good French onion soup, minus the beef stock and the hard raft of cheese and bread: a real revelation. The chewy, squidgy little pasta beads reminded me of a grown up variant on alphabet soup: this is what you think of when you think winter comfort food.
Ubuntu's cauliflower in a cast iron pot with vadovuan and "couscous" is the restaurant's killer app, the menu item that Must Appear at all times or There Will Be Consequences. For good reason: it tastes like nothing you've ever tried before in a really exquisite way: sort of like a creamy, cheesy, buttery dip composed out of cauliflower. The cauliflower is pureed, turned into texturally seductive "beads" and sliced raw: the contrast in textures and temperatures in this dish is something to remember. Ignore the too-hard toast points served with and just scrape this mofo out of the pot (perhaps while menacing your dining companions.)
Next was a sauerkraut and emmental pizza, with apple garlic confit and caraway. This oh-so-German winter special was pretty tasty, although I am no pizza lover: the kraut added an unusual and slightly fermented taste to the rustic, chewy dough and emmental cheese. It almost reminded me of eating a flat meatless reuben sandiwch. I am no vegetarian and will state with confidence this would be much improved by large quantities of fennel sausage.
This was a carrot gnocchi with parmesan cheese and fragrant spices: a beautiful dish to look at. How did it taste? Extremely high end Kraft macaroni and cheese, and I assure you this is a good thing. The soft, gentle flavor of mac and cheese was cut through by the fruity aspect of carrot and the subtle but prevalant spices: I don't tend to like mac and cheese but I can make an exception here. This is a rich dish and I tend to prefer my food more structurally complex, but this is ideal comfort food for the petty bourgeoisie set.
We also tried a dish of smoked grits with hickory and apple BBQ'd brussel sprouts with a kimchi of the leaves - and my camera decided to eat the photos. It was a nice dish with a pretty dense hickory smoke flavor, although a bit more overt then I prefer. The BBQ'd brussel sprouts were interesting and tasty, and I like the astringent and fruity apple-greens kimchi served on the side.
Ubuntu's Deanie Fox makes some interesting desserts, and I advise even the sweet-shunning crowd to pick something out from the menu. I chose the white chocolate ice cream with seasonal fruits and citrus sorbet: an ideal dessert for my citrus loving and sugar-shunning self, with a great interplay between fresh fruit, slushy sorbet, and smooth and melting ice cream. The presentation was also gorgeous, although the bowl was badly weighted: don't eat this too quickly or the person sitting across you may end up wearing it.
We finished up with a few miniature vegan carrot-cake cupcakes. Note the adorable little candied carrots up on top. These were super moist and also super sweet: a bit much for me, although I liked the yogurty tang of the cream cheese dressing. The vegan cupcake continues its unstoppable march across American gastronomy, and I won't stand in its way.
Ubuntu is just plain wonderful. Few restaurants foster so much thinking and discovery as this one: every menu item is a totally new experience and surprise. Although I'll never give up my beloved dead animals, I'll happily go veg for a meal at Ubuntu.