The day after we arrived was my birthday, so of course I had booked something special for dinner. After hot-air ballooning in the morning and doing a bit of inaugural wine-tasting in the afternoon, we headed into downtown Napa for dinner. And where was our destination? No less than the most famous vegetable-focused restaurant in the country, of course: Ubuntu.
Frank Bruni brought fame to the vegetable restaurant-slash-yoga-studio when he wrote about it a few years ago. In person, the restaurant is quite large, with warehouse-style high ceilings and an insanely, almost preternaturally peppy and friendly staff, all of whom are clearly committed to the pro-vegetable ethos of the restaurant. We each started out with some bubbly in their elegant flutes, and after a few moments the amuse bouche emerged. Unfortunately, I have absolutely no recollection of what this was, except for the fact that the foam was bizarrely flavorful and the chilled soup below it was delicious.
To begin, we shared the "garden snake," a tangle of fresh greens and flowers accented with their signature "soil," essentially a way to repurpose vegetable scraps (as explained by our server). That night, the soil was made of charred kohlrabi, and it was a bitter counterpoint to the fresh greens.
As entrees, Mom and I shared the beets ("assorted beets, roasted and a la giardiniera, with preserved lime and pistachio; lightly cooked squash, mint, torn potatoes, purslane"). This was a symphony of flavors, with fuscia beet puree and all different kinds and colors of raw and cooked beets. The spice-coated crispy potatoes were hearty and tasty as well.
We also went for the asparagus dish: "roast and raw asparagus, cool burrata coated with s&p potato chip crumbs; potato skin puree, pine nut/currant soffrito, baby head lettuces." This was an insanely busy plate, arranged like the forest floor, with tastes of asparagus, dollops of creamy puree, puddles of foam, sweet currants, and more. Oh, and the small spheres of burrata were as reliably milky and creamy as expected. I preferred this dish, potentially because the flavors were slightly more familiar (asparagus and cheese, sure!) while Mom slightly preferred the beets.
Nothing on the dessert menu appealed (stay tuned...), but since it was my birthday, the kitchen sent out two mignardises with a candle. These were their play on PB&J, with jelly gelees sandwiched between peanut butter chips, and darn it if it didn't taste exactly like PB&J. Spot on and incredible.
Ubuntu was certainly an experience, and I'm very glad I went. It's not exactly the kind of food I crave every day, but it featured the most creative takes on vegetables I've ever seen, alongside an attractive dining room and super friendly and welcoming service. For those who appreciate food-- even those who aren't vegetarian-- it's a prominent example of a restaurant keeping the purity and integrity in its food while not forgoing creativity or deliciousness. If you're in the Napa region, it's an experience and a must-do.
1140 Main Street, Napa