UBUNTU was one of those remarkable and sometimes enigmatic restaurants where I needed to keep the menu on the tabletop. I kept glancing at it to check for details that would help me to better understand the nuanced and complex flavors at this innovative vegetarian restaurant in Napa, CA. UBUNTU is an African worldview based on the interconnectedness of all humanity. One who has UBUNTU is known for generosity. By the end of this abundant and fascinating meal I began to understand the reference. The contemporary and uncluttered interior directs the eye to the open kitchen where prep is audible in good humored banter. Look up to the second level and notice a wall of shaded glass, behind which is a yoga studio. It is clearly separated from diners and diners from practitioners. OM, I liked it here.
I make it a point to eat at vegetarian spots wherever I travel. The obvious reason is that it is a joy to open a menu and feel free to order anything being offered. Additionally, many veg spots are organic and utilize local produce, always a big plus on the palate and important because it is the sensible and right thing to do. UBUNTU offers numerous ways to explore their menu, including a four, six or eight course tasting menu, priced at $55.,$72.,and $85. Although the decision to participate in a prix fixe menu must be made by the whole table, everyone may then make their own choices for each course. Our group eagerly agreed that we wanted to try as many dishes as possible, so we ordered the four course “exploration of UBUNTU’s summer garden” .
With only nine items offered that evening, we were psyched to taste six between us, plus desserts. Each ingredient,coming from their biodynamic and organically farmed garden, is in bold print on the menu, emphasizing the freshness of the ingredients and the richness of this valley.A short glass filled with bright orange/magenta juice and topped with a blush foam arrived as an amuse bouche of pureed melon topped with green tomato foam. Definitely setting the tone for unusual flavors, we loved the look but didn’t particularly like the vegetal foam. What came next made up for it, though. I thoroughly enjoyed the presentation and flavors in the chilled cantaloupe and sage gazpacho. The clear broth was poured over perfectly sliced tiny bits of veggies and flower buds. It looked as if each colorful element had been arranged in the bowl by hand, somehow, without it feeling too precious. But wait, what was that flavor in the broth? Our knowledgeable server, a pastry chef in training at the local branch of the CIA, explained that fresh corn husks had been roasted, caramelized and then combined with a simple stock of corn cobs, water and onions. REALLY? Spicy charred lime peanuts, pickled watermelon rind and drops of shiso oil glistened on the surface. It worked. The flavors were so unfamiliar, so unexpected, that it fascinated.
Others at the table marveled at the flavor of the crisp pole beans and smoked cucumber salad, served with local burrata and miso soaked radish, fennel “cloud” (more foam) and “flavorosa pluots, topped with tarragon dressing. The menu offers UBUNTU’s farm fresh eggs, poached or fried, on any of the selections and those who ordered the salad enjoyed the rich, bright orange yoke and perfectly poached egg as a counterpoint to the raw flavors and crunch.
Other highlights were a toasted pearl pasta, bathed in that same distinctive corn broth, “bianco di maggio” onions, wild fennel, spicy chile verde, creamy in a goat milk creme fraiche. The spicy, richer pasta was a welcome contrast to the vegetable dishes of the previous courses.
I liked the first three courses more than the desserts but still appreciated the creative thinking in the Silverado Trail pudding, a cooling green cucumber granita with offbeat flavors of veg and fruit all in one dish. An interesting point about their wine selection is that while they are located in the heart of California wine country, they source organic and biodynamic wines from Italy and France because they feel the big bold California reds are not compatible with their vegetarian menu.
If you are looking for true adventure in dining and you have an open palate, this is a not to be missed vegetarian choice in Napa, CA.