We selected Unbuntu in Napa to eat at because it is vegetarian and there were a number of well regarded reviews for the restaurant. My wife is a vegetarian and I can always use extra veggies – honestly, I quite enjoy vegetarian cuisine when done well and thoughtfully.
Ubuntu is located along Main Street in Napa in a fashionable strip, the interior is well appointed with a massive family style table dominating the center of the dining room, which is headed by a full length open kitchen. The feel is very inviting and comfortable and they are obviously well received in the area as the dining room was full when we arrived.
The menu is all vegetarian and seems to be a bargain from a price point of view. There are three starters to select from – get all three for $15 – not bad. The “entrees” (about a dozen) top out around $15, which was surprisingly low, but very appealing. The menu contains many ingredients from the owners garden, which our server described as a biodynamic estate on the edge of Napa. These selections are highlighted throughout the menu, as they should be, as a celebration of the restaurant’s mission. Hard to limit ourselves, so we ordered a variety.
This is where had our first little issue: apparently the food comes out when it (or the kitchen) is ready, not in the order you want to eat it. We ordered a pizza as one of our items and were told that it would be at least 5 or 20 minutes and could not have it as an apetizer. I guess the waitress was able to read my body-language and came back a few minutes later to inform us that the pizza would only be about 6 minutes. Why trouble us with this detail when she should be able to control the timing of items to the table: if we want a pizza to split as an ap, then give me a pizza to split as an ap? The food service was not specially designed or coordinated (like at the Slanted Door) to move in a progression – it was just as the kitchen was able (or willing) to serve - at least that was the impression we got.
We were genuinely impressed by the food. The signature salad (gargouillou of the ubuntu SPRING GARDEN (v) - today’s LEAVES, FLOWERS, ROOTS, and SHOOTS…hazelnut “soil”) was the first to arrive. (We had ordered the chickpea fries to start, but the waitress seemed to forget these). This salad was a beautiful assortment of flowers, greens and micro-veggies that was as appealing visually as it tasted. Each leaf, flower or baby-carrot was wonderfully flavorful and made for a real treat to eat as it was just a great celebration of the “garden”. Only problem was that when this salad was served we were lectured about how attached the chef was the “antique” cutting board that it was being served on and we were severely cautioned about touching it with out utensils as it might damage the wood. Now, this cutting board (and I did not bother to verify this) looked to me as though it was a new cutting board made form old wood. Quite nice and as it was shaped liked a pig, added a playful note to the dish, but give me a break. At some point this piece of wood has be cleaned – I am not sure about Californian regulations, but most places have to wash their service pieces at some point – even sterilize them – before returning for another customer. So what ever possible “damage” I could inflict on this piece of wood was by no means close to what the dishwasher was going to do. Again, why burden me with this detail? I felt like telling the waitress to take the whole thing back, but the salad was good. (It would actually be quite enjoyable to eat this dish with chop-stick as the delicate greens and flowers were challenging with a full-sized fork, plus it would limit damage to the service board.)
Next came the pizza (strawberry pizza margherita with hand-pulled mozzarella - three-day napa strawberry soffrito, first BASILS of the year, saba). This was not served with any cautions about the plate so we felt safe using our knife and fork. The pizza was great, except for the crust. The top was light and fresh – each component really expressing its flavors while mingling well with the other ingredients. The crust was simple and unflavorful – very reminiscent of Pizza Hut crust. This is something that I have experienced on the West Coast quite a bit - I think it is the water that is used, which can quite significant. There seems to be a lack of understanding of how to make good pizza dough, here. Not-withstanding, the pizza was very enjoyable.
Our third dish (and I apologize for not having the exact description – it sounded great, but Ubuntu’s website menu has not been updated in about two month’s and has changed slightly) was a combination of small round pastas (not sure of the exact name) along with a rich, delicious “sauce” that was filled with herbs and was almost like a minestrone. It also had a couple of batter fried blossoms, which are some of my favorite things to eat. This was a very good dish, serving size was a bit small, though.
As we were being served this dish our waitress asked if this was going to be enough food for the evening as the kitchen was getting ready to close (we were a bit surprised as it was only 9:16pm). We reminded her that we were still awaiting the (forgotten) chickpea fries and asked if we could we have a menu to perhaps make another selection or two. She never brought the menu, but did come back three minutes later to tell us that the kitchen was now closed. Ok. Aside from the fact that I was still hungry and was annoyed about the fact that I was told I could order and then told I could not – I could see more tickets up on the kitchen line for customers that had not gotten their meals yet. The kitchen was not closed and was still plating food, but they felt I had had enough time to eat and were not serving me.
We were allowed to order dessert as the pastry chef seemed to work later than the rest of the kitchen. Dessert (there were actually two of them – the waitress comp’d one for us as were obviously a bit annoyed) was simply outstanding. Again, the Ubuntu website menus have not been updated so I do not have the exact item description, but one dish was a float made with geranium soda – quite intensely flavored, unique. The other was not ordered by us, but I believe it was this dish (bittersweet chocolate soufflé - toasted marshmallow and graham cracker ice cream). Very well executed.
All in all the food was quite good to outstanding and we were very pleased with what we had, despite the growing feeling that the restaurant was really quite self-absorbed. This was emphasized by the brochure the waitress gave us toward the end of our meal which contained an ego-picture of the owner and a statement about how we (the guests) should view our visit as a gift, to be cherished the rest our days. We also learned a bit about the philosophy of the restaurant in the brochure and about their commitment to the earth and community – ideas I embrace in my daily life. And this brings me to my last problem with Ubuntu - the wine list.
The first page of the list outlines and reinforces the philosophy of sustainability, biodynamics and the commitment of Ubuntu to the Earth. In this description they describe how 60% (it actually says 70% in the brochure) of the wines are sustainably grown. My question is then: if this whole place is dedicated to sustainability, the décor uses recycled materials, the food comes from biodynamic gardens, etc, etc – then why let this (big) aspect of the business fail that mission? Make the list 100% sustainable and maintain focus on the mission statement. To me, 60% sustainable, means a 60% effort in the wine program. This might be acceptable in many places (actually it is not), but in NAPA? That is issue #1 with the list.
Issue #2 – selection. The wine list was disjointed and incomplete, and worst of all, it did not jive with the food. Granted this is Napa, where Cabernet is king, but c’mon, Cabernet is not my first choice for delicate vegetarian food. I understand that there probably are local vintners who are frequent guests and want to have their wines here, but the feel I got from this list is that there was a lot of thought given to selections based on their name, not how they paired with the cuisine. Again, I see this as a failure to deliver on the commitment and mission that is outlined in every other aspect of Ubuntu. Here is an opportunity to let your cuisine shine alongside some of the greatest, most interesting and thoughtful wines produced. But instead it was (at least in part) more about names. There are some great local selections, there are some odd import selections, but my thought was that they could either focus exclusively on local (that is a bit part of their mission statement) products, or at least top world selections that are committed to sustainability. There was neither, and it just seemed liked a list that was thrown together.
Problem #3 – price. The wine list was very expensive and my impression was that since the food menu items were such good values, there was a (fairly obvious) attempt to make up profits from the wine list. I am in the business, so price and mark-ups are a sensitive subject to me. I also understand that this is a tourist area so there is generally going to be a premium. My problem here is that the mark-ups on the list favor the house quite generously. Consumer choice, though, enough said.
We left Ubuntu feeling a bit disappointed from a service point of view and from a hospitality point of view. Each of us felt as though the restaurant was really there as an outlet for the owner’s / chef’s egos rather than a celebration of a unique culinary experience, which is what we were hoping for. Added to this was the fact that the wine list was a bit disappointing. From a creative (were speaking food here) and quality point of view, the food was exceptional.