EAT – Ubuntu, better than ever

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One of Napa Valley’s best restaurants is Ubuntu in downtown Napa. Executive chef Jeremy Fox’s “vegetable cuisine” was a revelation. He redefined what it means to have an all vegetable-based menu, with much of the produce coming from the kitchen’s biodynamic garden fresh every day. Fox and Ubuntu received many awards and accolades. Well Fox departed earlier this year, and I think many of us were holding our collective breath about the restaurant’s future. Would it be as good with another chef? Will the vegetable menu be replaced? Will the restaurant close?

Rest assured, we can all breathe. I believe Ubuntu is now better than ever. The kitchen is now in the hands of executive chef Aaron London, who has been at Ubuntu since its opening in 2007. He’s got a stellar resume´- including stints at Daniel, Blue Hill at Stone Barns, L’Astrance and Arpege in Paris.  London is not only keeping the vegetable format, he’s elevated it.

My group for a recent Saturday lunch was made up of foodies, and many of us had dined at Ubuntu when Fox was at the helm. The first difference is the menu — gone is the little caldron of baked cauliflower and cheesy goodness. Trust me, you won’t miss it. Instead, try the gremolatta crusted zeppola stuffed with burrata. Mmmmm.

Each dish is a work of art and a creative blend of flavors and textures. To start, “chips ’n dip” – with lettuce, baby carrots, paper thin crackers made of carrot ash and a green goddess dressing for dipping it all in. Delicate flavors and interesting textures.
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One of my absolute favorites is the clear cantaloupe soup with pineapple sage gazpacho, compressed melon, rat tail radishes, fork crushed avocado, aloe vera and banana mint.

The broth is poured tableside. Such delicate flavors; you get a hint of tropical from the pineapple sage and banana mint. The broth is incredibly clear; according to our server it’s strained at least twice.

I’ve had cheese grits, grits with gravy, shrimp and grits, but never with a strawberry sofrito. This creamy dish totally works. There’s also caramelized fino verde fennel, fresh ricotta and spinach. We’re told the sofrito was made over four days. London’s care and attention to detail in preparing ingredients for the dishes is mind boggling.
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Our group also loved the carrot salad — slow roasted red dragon and crisp purple haze carrots with nasturtium panade, delfino cilantro and ras el hanout. This north African spice enlivens the dish, and gives it a subtle smokey quality.
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The marinated ruby queen beets with aerated yogurt, beet tartare, compressed blenheim apricots and granola was a study in colors, contrasts and textures. I mean, granola and beets, who does that?
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The beet salad is absolutely beautiful to look at, as are all London’s dishes. The freshness of the fruit and vegetables stand out and shines. The unusual and inventive combination of flavors are unexpected and keep your mouth guessing, but happy. All the more reason to plan to dine at Ubuntu now.

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