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Napa veg out

Local Marcona almonds, vadouvan spice, sweet herbs

Local Marcona almonds, vadouvan spice, sweet herbs

I’ve just returned from a conference in the Napa Valley, where I had a couple of free nights to dine out. One night I met up with a friend at a convenient, casual spot called Farmstead, where we sat at the bar and ate fried potatoes and a really tasty salad of raw, shredded Tuscan kale dressed in a garlicky vinaigrette and showered with cheese crisps.

The other night was my blowout. I tried a restaurant that has long intrigued me. Ubuntu in downtown Napa serves an all-vegetable menu, is attached to a yoga studio and has earned a Michelin star. The restaurant opened and earned its reputation under previous chef Jeremy Fox, though I heard a few people comment that they’ve found the food even better under current chef Aaron London.

London is a chill dude in his 20’s, who wears his hair in a topknot during service. There’s a feeling of reach in his cooking, with big flavors that stretch as far as they can go. If his food were a yoga posture, it would be Warrior 2 instead of the shava-asana you might associate with vegetarian fare.

Would you like a bad iPhone gallery of the evening’s tasting menu? Your wish is my command.

So it starts with this bowl of curry-sweet-spiced nuts and herbs to munch on as needed and a shot of green garlic and fava leaf soup with a skewer of pickled radish:

IMG_3327Next comes an incredible artichoke and rangpur lime soup poured over a quenelle of minced braised beet leaf, crisp potatoes and a miso-cured egg yolk. Each component reveals a side of the artichoke’s personality:

IMG_3329Beet-o-rama (my words, not theirs): roasted, pickled, fried into chips, accented with the Japanese citrus-pepper seasoning yuzu-kosho. Flavors as angular as the cubed beets:

IMG_3330Roasted and raw asparagus with burrata, potato chip crumble and lots of other business (oh yeah, fennel foam) that adds up to big ol’ love letter to everyone’s favorite springtime stalk. Each of these plates so far has one big headlining star and a massive supporting cast.

IMG_3331The “garden snake” (their words, not mine) — basically a killer salad snaking through a “soil” made from dehydrated, toasted, sweet root veggies. I’ve noticed a few references to “soil” and “dirt” on menus in the Bay Area. I’m sure we’re not far from “mud,” “filth” and “detritus.”

IMG_3332You still with me? Then feast your eyes on this 24-hour rutabaga with citrus, fennel, avocado rouille (tinted orange with seasoning) and miner’s lettuce grown in the Ubuntu garden, as are many of the ingredients. There’s also a slice of rutabaga quick bread that helps keep the acidity of the citrus from running away with the show. LOVED the 24-hour rutabaga — firm but not at all mealy or like any rutabaga I had eaten before.

IMG_3333At this point in the meal I’m beginning to feel like an organic gardener’s piñata, ready to burst. But it’s hard to resist this fresh extruded pasta with “artichoked in various preparations,” caramelized grapefruit and Midnight Moon (an aged goat cheese). I loved the way the artichoke flavor came in waves, loved the way the dehydrated chips mirrored truffle shavings, and loved the way the flavor hinted at mushrooms and truffles that weren’t there. Did not love the jiggly, fall-apart pasta that provided a poor vehicle.

IMG_3334Dinner ends with this dense and not-terribly-white-chocolatey white chocolate custard with chocolate-chip sized dots of blood orange curd and lime/yogurt sorbet. Wasn’t feeling the love for this dessert, but I may have just been too full. This is definitely not the kind of vegetarian meal that makes you want to go for a cheeseburger afterward.

IMG_3336I’d love to go back in another season to see what London is up to in the kitchen.

15 comments Add your comment

FoodFan

April 19th, 2011
12:18 pm

Free nights to dine out, from YOU, John? A food writer eating for free & then reviewing the food – after all this Bourdain, John Mariani talk the last couple of weeks?! John, you should be ashamed…

Oh, you meant like “available” nights, not “free wining & dining”. Oh, OK :)

Lisa

April 19th, 2011
1:31 pm

Makes me want to go back to Napa NOW. I like tasting menus but I do fill up fast on them

Kirk

April 19th, 2011
1:50 pm

Looks like a fun feast. Wish I was there. I thinks the photos are fine.

StylinGirl

April 19th, 2011
1:56 pm

What makes the rutabaga “24 hour?”

Typical Redneck

April 19th, 2011
1:59 pm

Drew

April 19th, 2011
3:05 pm

We ate at Ubuntu last year, right around the time London took over the kitchen. I wasn’t expecting much and had suggested it as a peace offering to the herbivore friends we were travelling with to compensate for all of the Fatted Calf, In and Out, and Taylor’s visits I kept insisting on. I was blown away. There were enough of us that we basically ordered the entire menu and there wasn’t a bad dish on it. I particularly remember one that featured about a half a dozen different preparations of fennel, including an amazing compressed sous vide fennel as well as falafel that was bright green from minced fennel fronds. I also cribbed their “cheesecake” dish — whipped marscapone on brandied cherries and crumbled biscotti in Mason jars — a super-easy dinner party dessert.

StephieZ

April 19th, 2011
3:13 pm

Drew, I’m gonna need more info than that on your cribbed “cheesecake:”

RK

April 19th, 2011
3:49 pm

I went when Fox was there 2 years ago — one of the worst dining experiences I’ve ever had. The atmosphere was just awful — we were slammed against other tables against the wall in a 75%-empty restaurant where we felt like we were listening in on everyone’s conversation. The food was ok — certainly pretty but not mind-blowing, except for a pea dish with white chocolate, but the atmosphere and service destroyed anything positive I could remember. Glad that you had a better experience…

KoPP

April 19th, 2011
5:40 pm

With the ‘wine contry’ stretching further north and west, there are more options for good vegetarian restaurants up toward Ukiah and Sebastopol. Napa naturally houses a greater concentration, but a pleeasant drive over the gap from Calistoga to Santa Rosa, and then a right turn on 101 provides a great number of less-hyped lables (Unti, for one) and restaurants, and gets you away from the tourist craziness of Napa. I usually stay in Calestoga because at least you can drive against the insane traffic on 29. 101 ain’t no picinick, but at least it’s 4 lanes.

PTC DAWG

April 19th, 2011
6:07 pm

Rabbit food comes to mind.

Billie

April 19th, 2011
8:27 pm

No, kale is the coolest thing ever! More nutrition per square inch than any other food in the world!
That kale dish sounds fabulous!
The other menu, too. [Clicking heels of ruby slippers together twice]: There’s no place like Napa! There’s no place like Napa!

Grasshopper

April 20th, 2011
2:23 pm

No need for ‘Colon Blow’ after this meal.

Katherine

April 20th, 2011
7:44 pm

We’re in Napa now and are going to this restaurant tonight because of your post! I think your photos convinced my meat loving husband. Thanks for the suggestion.

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