Since Valentine’s day fell on a Monday this year, we used it an excuse to finally check out Ubuntu in Napa. We have been meaning to go for the last three years, but always got distracted by the other restaurants in wine country. Anyway, we couldn’t think of a better place than Ubuntu for a romantic Meatless Monday meal. I have to admit, we made reservations only three nights before the big, romantic day and were so happy that we got the only time slot left on Open Table.
In a time of restaurant apps, blogs, and review sites, we walked in with no expectations. I had always wanted to check out this restaurant and I have always heard really positive things about it. Though, contrary to our usual ritual when making a reservation at a new restaurant, we simply booked it. No Yelp, asking friends, or reading up on the gossip. We just wanted to have fun and enjoy a good meal. We didn’t even bother looking up what “Ubuntu” meant, even though I just knew it meant something really good. Satish told me that Ubuntu was a Linux software distribution, so he couldn’t imagine it being the name of a vegetarian restaurant. What I did know was that Ubuntu has it’s own culinary garden, there was a recent chef change, and it had one Michelin star. I even debated leaving my camera at home, but couldn’t go through with that silly idea.
As we walked in, we were surprised to see how large and beautiful the restaurant was. I had always imagined a tiny, funky space with hippies and yogis (not that there is anything wrong with that) with a yoga studio directly above the dining area. Though, the design is comparable to any of the new, modern restos in San Francisco. The airy space puts you at ease with large, vibrant artwork on stone walls adding warmth. The yoga studio is on the second floor loft directly above the open kitchen. The floor to ceiling window is opaque and overlooks the dining room. There was a class in session and all you can see are silhouettes of people doing yoga. There were no empty tables, but the noise level was low, making the ambiance perfect for a modern, romantic dinner.
Since we arrived a bit early for our reservation, we got wine at the bar. Their wine list features mostly sustainably farmed wines from around the world. We were served marcona almonds to make up for the wait. They were really good, but a little sweet for a starter and we were really hungry. The micro-green garnish provided a great balance between sweet and savory.
We ended up waiting 35 minutes after we our reservation time and it turned out that there was a communication error between the two hostesses. I was a little upset, but the waitress and hostesses were very apologetic, and we did not want that to taint the rest of our night. They comped our wine and brought us a chickpea dish that was not on the menu. The chickpea dish, alone, made up for the miscommunication. This dish had almost every flavor profile I crave. It was meaty, saucy, sweet, light, spicy, and pretty. It’s the kind of dish that inspires me to be a better cook and explore unfamiliar flavors.
We ordered 3 dishes total for the two of us, even though about 2-3 is recommended per person. We are not big eaters and we already had the macarona almonds, chickpeas, bread, and amuse-bouche. I was almost full, but gladly managed to find more room in my stomach. The menu compromised of local, seasonal produce (as expected), and many of it came from their biodynamic gardens. We ordered a side of the Arbuckle Grits cooked with goat’s milk whey and sharp cheddar cheese ($7), which was decadently rich and amazing. The Garden-Infused Fiore Pasta ($19) was our least favorite dish of the night. We thought it was rather bland. The Rutabaga and Bread ($16) was our favorite dish. It had a medley of citrus, including perfectly crimson blood oranges, a thick citrus-saffron sauce, a moist wedge of bread, and rutabaga. I wish I could eat that everyday. The saffron sauce was just divine; the flavor was sheer perfection. Really, I have no words to describe the sensation I got when I ate that dish. The runner-up was the Little Potato Pillows ($18) and I normally do not like radishes. The potatoes sat on creamy sauerkraut mousse and were adorned with caramelized sauerkraut, black kale, radish giardinieria, including the pretty watermelon radish.
After all of that and two more glasses of red wine, we were in a perfect state. Though, we could not pass up dessert. All of the options looked good and we debated between the chocolate brownie ($10) and a dessert made out of celery. Our waitress (Rachel) told us that the celery dessert was really like dessert and not a vegetable dish. Me being me, got the brownie. The micro-greens on the brownie balanced out the sweetness of the candied kumquats. I loved that this dessert wasn’t overpoweringly sweet. Compliments from the kitchen, we also got the celery root dessert. Wow. I don’t even know how to describe it, but Satish liked it over the brownie.
The flavors and textures are inventive and we didn’t even miss the meat. My enthusiastic husband just loved every bite. I did too, but my meat-loving sweetheart loved every single bite. He was right, every single bite offered so much good flavor. At most places, the first five bites really pleases and then your taste buds get used to it, but at Ubuntu, each bite is unique and kept teasing you. And at the last bite, you are sad that it’s all over, but you are equally satisfied and left in a zen-like state.
After our meal, executive chef Aaron London, came over to talk to us. I was surprised to find that he was younger than me and that he is not a strict vegetarian. His food seemed to come from a much more experienced chef. Though, Chef London has been cooking since his teens and has worked at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Au Pied de Cochon, amongst other acclaimed restaurants.
Ubuntu pushes boundaries on not vegetarianism, but the importance of sourcing ingredients. We live in a world, where our eating habits are not sustainable and are damaging to ourselves and the ecosystem. Ubuntu stands for “an ethic or humanist philosophy focusing on people’s allegiances and relations with each other emphasizing community, sharing and generosity.” Restaurants are leaders for what consumers demand and Ubuntu certainly creates a demand for fresh, local food. Most of us also do not know where our food comes from and Ubuntu does a fine job of reminding you the importance in knowing all aspects of your food. The restaurant takes ingredients to new heights and pushes boundaries on sustainable eating.
I would really like go back during the Spring and late Summer to experience the different seasonal flavors and vegetables. Though, next time I would come in a large group, because there is nothing better than eating good food with great friends!
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