Ubuntu - Napa, CA

Lunch - Sunday, April 17, 2011

When Jeremy and Deanie Fox left Ubuntu last year, there was mild panic in the food world. The yoga-studio-cum-vegetarian-restaurant had achieved significant acclaim with them in the kitchen, and people wondered whether Ubuntu would ever be the same. Sous chef Aaron London was promoted to the top position, and there've been some conflicting reports about the food since he assumed the mantle. We made it a point to stop in for a quick bite, to see how the restaurant had evolved. To my surprise, I found the experience much more Fox-esque than I had anticipated.

Green garlic and fava leaf soup
Radish giardinera
The soup shot was perfectly evocative of the coming of Spring. Fresh, but with lingering depth from the olive oil, and the fava leaf component was redolent of the legume. The acidity from the radish giardinera was a nice touch.

Artichoke and rangpur vichyssoise
Forono beet chips, crisp/creamy potatoes, miso-cured egg yolk
Much thinner than traditional vichyssoise. The highly acidic rangpur was nicely balanced by the nutty, grassy artichoke. The beet green chips and the crispy smashed potatoes were excellent at providing texture and meatiness to the dish. I found the umami-rich egg rather incongruous with the rest of the bowl, but enjoyed it separately.

Slow-roasted chioggia beets, broccoli, yuzu kosho
Spiced almond, forono beet chips, pickled beets
Superb - a bold dish with some of the best beets and broccoli I've ever tasted. The spiciness of the yuzu kosho was appreciated as well. I love it when different faces of an ingredient are revealed on one plate.

Garden-infused fiore
Artichokes, caramelized grapefruit, 'Midnight Moon' gouda
Like the plate above, I really enjoyed how the artichoke was presented in various forms, but the cheese overwhelmed most of the other components - 'Midnight Moon' is strongly-flavoured, and there was too much of it grated over the pasta (which was itself rather overcooked). A slight letdown.

Roasted and raw asparagus, Ubuntu farm egg
Burrata, potato skin puree, pine nut/currant sofrito, baby head lettuce
A great recovery after the pasta. The burrata was strewn with salt-and-pepper potato chip crumbs, giving the dish a nice crunchy component. The potato skin puree was rather strange, but highly enjoyable. The poached egg (a gratuitous addition on our part) was a natural complement to the two preparations of asparagus, which were sublime.

Milk chocolate pudding, satsumas
Brown sugar crumble, tarragon-citrus granita
White chocolate custard
Lime-yogurt sorbet, blood orange curd, hibiscus, mandarins
Desserts were significantly richer than the savory courses. The huge mound of chocolate pudding was delectable, but I really question the need for so much of it. Regardless, the citrus did a lot to round off the sweetness of the milk chocolate. As enjoyable as the pudding was, both of us preferred the second dessert, both in concept and execution. The sorbet was tart and refreshing, pairing well with the floral hibiscus. I was surprised by how muted the custard was, but this nicely allowed the other components to use it as a base for their own unique contributions.

Although complicated, the dishes maintained a true clarity of flavour that escapes many lesser restaurants. Also, the visual appeal of the vegetables was evident. It appears that the James Beard Rising Star Chef nomination for Aaron London is well-deserved, and Ubuntu is still going strong. A return trip is in order this Summer to see how he adapts to the new season and how much of Jeremy Fox's influence will be left behind after a year in absentia.

1140 Main St.
Napa, CA 94559
Phone: (707) 251-5656