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:
Next 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:
Roasted 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.
The “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.”
You 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.
At 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.
Dinner 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.