By Carey Sweet
E ditor's note: First Bite is a new concept in restaurant writing. This is not a go-three-times, try-everything-on-the-menu report; rather, this is a quick snapshot of a single experience.
For a part of the country already revered for its bounty of garden-fresh fruits and vegetables, Ubuntu in Napa has some of the most extraordinary specimens available on a restaurant plate. The upscale vegetarian oasis, opened in August, sources most of its ingredients from daily harvested organics grown in its own biodynamic gardens—planted by former COPIA curator Jeff Dawson—and its dairy, eggs, grains and accents like honey from Northern California's finest purveyors.
The chic, sleek spot (it must be mentioned, for the novelty factor, that Ubuntu is a also swanky yoga studio upstairs), features some high-end international nods, like matsutake mushrooms that can cost $30 per pound in Japan, Marcona almonds and Padrón peppers from Spain, vadouvan spice from India, and burrata that comes from Italy's mozzarella di bufala. And everything comes bundled in sophisticated dishes, like biodynamic risotto folded with globe onion purée and summer truffle-stuffed fougerus cheese (a bloomy-rind cow's milk cheese from Tournan, in the Île-de-France), or a summer berry float of watermelon-hibiscus agua fresca spiked with lime granita.
Yet the best pedigreed food, most complicated recipe or glitteriest concept doesn't guarantee excitement without the talents of a skilled chef, and for that, credit Ubuntu artist Jeremy Fox, a Johnson & Wales grad who's cooked with Gordon Ramsay and was previously chef de cuisine with Manresa of Los Gatos. What he's doing with these fine things is an inspiration.
Those precious matsutakes come thinly sliced but meaty, decorated with tiny bitterish white flowers, whole miniature hot radishes and dices of slippery homemade sesame tofu in a delicate, earthy broth ($10). A panzanella salad sings with grilled sweet-juicy peach, fluffy ricotta, crisp string beans and a zingy basil bud vinegar that imbues the bread with oily fire ($9). A single, simple beer-battered garden pepper stuffed with summer squash seemed pricey ($8), until the tempura melts in the mouth and the full-throttle romesco kicks in.
Fox sets the sensation bar so high, in fact, that in comparison, one evening's "carta de musica" ($12) tasted almost ordinary, the whisper-thin cracker bread dotted with the slightest amount of porcini, pecorino and summer truffle, while the pizza of Kadota fig, braised amaranth and beet greens with Point Reyes blue cheese ($14) was more decoration than flavor.
The only true concern is that it's very possible to leave here still hungry; the most filling dish on a recent menu was a gratin of three-hour braised fava beans and fideo sofrito with smoked tomato and a Long Meadow ranch egg. It was an intense but appetizer-portioned spaghetti casserole ($12).
That means that even the most generous ordering leaves room for dessert, prepared by Jeremy's wife and partner Deanie Fox, also formerly of Manresa. Fox prepares such not-to-be-missed delights as brioche French toast with coastal huckleberries, sweet corn ice cream, honey and bee pollen ($8). The custardy bread is partnered with a crackly thin fruit roll-up and, yes, there were plenty of fat kernels in the ice cream for a weirdly pleasing effect. Brown butter crêpes, too, with nectarines, Bourbon-butterscotch ice cream and pecans ($7) were pillowy pleasures shocked with spun sugar. All of which adds up to a most remarkable meal in a most remarkable restaurant.
Ubuntu, 1140 Main St., Napa. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner daily. 707.251.5656.
Send a letter to the editor about this story.