Ubuntu - Napa, CA

Dinner - Sunday, July 17, 2011

Having greatly enjoyed our meal under Aaron London's care on our previous visit, we decided that a return for dinner was necessary on this trip.

Given that we had just run the Napa-to-Sonoma race in the morning, we were starving way before our appointed reservation time (this despite some rather large burgers at Gott's and a nibbling tour of Jacobsen Orchards). The restaurant was bustling when we arrived at 7.00 in the evening. One thing I love about Ubuntu is the amount of natural light in the room, and the airiness of the space. Corny as it sounds, the open environment has a soothing, relaxing effect.

Local marcona almonds, vadouvan, sweet herbs
Amuse - Tomato/melon summer agua fresca
They started us off with a snack - the ever-popular vadouvan-spiced almonds and a refreshingly bright agua fresca. These did their job at quieting our initial hunger pangs, and we settled in comfortably.

Cantaloupe and sage gazpacho
Peanuts, radish, watermelon, jalapenos, borage
Exquisite to behold, and intensely perfumed. The liquid was a puree of raw cantaloupe and sage, infused with roasted corn husks, and then strained extensively through cheesecloth until nearly clear - just a tinge of colour remained, belying its bold flavours. This was poured over various pickles - radishes, watermelon, jalapenos. Spicy charred lime peanuts were nicely crunchy, and a delicious onion top oil added depth and gravity.

Beets, squash, potatoes
Mint, mustard greens, lime, pistachios
Various beets were presented roasted and pickled, a nice exploration of the vegetable's dimensions. I really enjoyed the fried potatoes - their saltiness kept the dish in balance, and they were satisfying to this tired runner. A gremolata of preserved lime and pistachio was genius, tying together all the other components.

Pole beans, smoked cucumber, tarragon dressing
Burrata, miso radish, pickled corn cloud, 'Flavorosa' pluots
'Ox heart' carrots, 'Orion' fennel
Brown butter cherries, Mint-lime pickles
A deliciously savory examination of carrots and fennel. The carrots were served roasted (with eucalyptus and Ras el hanout), as a light mousse, and also as crisp shavings of the raw root. Similarly, fennel was present in the guise of roasted bulbs and candied stems. Both vegetables were surprisingly umami and not as sweet as I would have expected. The caramelized cherries brought the element of sweetness, as well as a nice nuttiness from the browned butter.

Organic arbuckle grits, strawberry sofrito
'Fino verde' fennel confit, white strawberry emulsion, goat's milk ricotta
Creamy grits, cooked in goat's milk whey - I could have downed a bucketful. The distinctive flavour of goat's milk was echoed again in the excellent house-made ricotta. The accompaniments really made this dish sing - sweet, sour, and salty notes from the strawberries and fennel. Oh, that magnificent sofrito, slow-cooked for days - white onion and pine nuts, roasted strawberries, finished off with tomatoes and balsamic vinegar. An excellent plate.

Warm focaccia, truffled pecorino, apricot/almond agrodolce
'Purple haze' carrots, crudite, fennel fronds, 'Rat tail' radish
We welcomed the presence of more fennel and carrots. This time, they took the back seat to the strong bite of the radish, the sweet-and-sour fruitiness of the agrodolce and the intense truffle aroma of the shaved pecorino. The crispy, oily focaccia was an excellent foil for the toppings, contributing a vital richness. I enjoyed this course greatly.

'Purple haze' carrots, milk chocolate, cocoa nib
Finally, carrots would make one final appearance as dessert. Again, it was served in various textures - sorbet, roast, puree and powder. Fresh raspberries provided the requisite acidity to balance the dish, and the canonical expectation of sweetness took form as a milk chocolate custard garnished with a crispy cocoa powder tuile. This would have been an interesting dessert by itself, but what really made it fascinating for me was the addition of arugula - its green notes and characteristic pepperiness were surprisingly delicious with the chocolate and carrots. For me, this is actually one of the few successful examples of introducing pepperiness/spiciness into dessert - too many places jumped onto that bandwagon a few years ago and completely botched their attempts.

Mignardises - Blueberry p√Ęte de fruits, Meyer lemon curd, white chocolate
Aaron London in his element
Another enjoyable meal under the auspices of Aaron London and his capable kitchen crew. Ubuntu screams modern Californian cuisine, in keeping with the ethos of farm-to-table cuisine yet breaking out from the tyranny of Alice Waters (I forget who coined that phrase, but it is so appropriate). I'm not sure that the restaurant's particular style could be replicated anywhere else, and that's perfectly fine with me.

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