Over Memorial Day weekend, we decided to take a leap into the unknown world of vegetarian cuisine and dined at Ubuntu Restaurant and Yoga Studio. Located in downtown Napa’s restaurant row, Ubuntu’s menu focuses on farm fresh produce from their biodynamic gardens located at Fetzer Vineyards and Kendall Jackson Vineyards. If you’re a visiting vegan/vegetarian, your options for good dining are somewhat slim. Let’s face it, pasta and salads can get old after awhile. Ubuntu has created a unique niche, not only in downtown Napa, but for the whole valley, that appeases the appetites for vegan, vegetarians and meat-lovers alike. Note: the dining room was dark and we didn’t have our handy camera with us, so we’ve only got a few low-quality photos to share thanks to our mobile phones.
The dining room: Standing at the cross walk across the street, we were immediately struck by how busy the restaurant looked. To us, that’s always a good sign of things to come and only piqued our interest even more. A good description for the space is open and balanced. Upon entering, the left side of the room is the bar, which boasts an impressive wine collection with a majority of the wines coming from sustainably farmed grapes. To the right is a staircase leading up to the yoga studio on the second floor.
In the middle of the room stretches a communal table, great for diners who walk in without reservations. Past the communal table is the kitchen, where artful food preparation can be observed. In keeping with an environmentally friendly theme, its wooden furnishings and flooring are made from reclaimed wood. Colorful panels are hung on the walls to lend a splash of color to the space. On the whole, the space is open but manages to set a warm dining environment.
The service: Perhaps it’s only our imagination but I believe the ambiance of the restaurant affected the overall disposition of its staff. In observing the servers and how they interacted with the patrons, they seemed to have a (dare I say) peaceful and friendly attitude about them. I never saw a server move from one table to the next in a frenzied state, which is a nice change of pace. Having never been to a vegan/vegetarian restaurant, our server understood our need to study the menu before selecting the dishes. She was also receptive to any questions we had. Overall, the service was perfectly paced.
The food: Being avid meat eaters, we were a bit worried that the food would not satisfy our appetites and did we think it would taste nothing more than seasoned grass with a side of beans or salad. Hoping to be proven wrong, we ordered the following: Chickpea fries with romesco sauce for an appetizer, Cauliflower in a cast-iron pot â€“ roast-puree-raw “couscous” with vandouvan spice toast (one of their specialties) for $13 and deep fried egg with gribiche and spring onion â€“ smoked fingerlings, black garlic, baby turnip puree, mustard ($15) for our main dishes. For dessert, we ordered Vanilla bean “cheesecake” in a jar â€“ roscoe’s blueberries, chamomile, almond-teeccino crumble for $9. I also ordered the Ubuntu vegan milkshake â€“ home-made almond milk, bananas and spices for $7. All three courses were mouth-wateringly fabulous!
Since people eat first with their eyes, how the food was presented definitely whetted our appetites. A small plate of chickpea fries arrived at our table first. The fries where very deliberately arranged on the plate with a light sauce on the side. To our delight, the chickpea fries weren’t soggy nor did it have the starchy, heavy feeling that characterize potato fries. In fact, it was very flavorful on its own and the romesco sauce was light enough to compliment the flavors, as opposed to overpowering it.
The cauliflower in a cast-iron pot was indeed served in a small (about 3â€ in diameter) cast-iron pot with the toast on the side. The cauliflower was creamy but not rich and the crunchy toast provided a good contrast to it.
The Deep Fried egg with gribiche and spring onion was surprisingly rich in flavor and quite filling, despite the small bites. The spring onion nicely complimented the egg and gribiche, making for a unique, tasty dish that’d we’d definitely get again.
Lastly the Vanilla bean “cheesecake” wasn’t a typical cheesecake at all. It was presented in a bale glass jar, with no hints of the traditional graham cracker crust in sight. Upon our first (big) bite, we discovered that there was no traditional heavy cream cheese and the blueberries were wonderfully juicy, sweet, and fresh! It was light and truly delicious.
The Cork Board Rating: Our first experience in a vegetarian restaurant was wonderful and far exceeded our expectations. The dining room, service, and the especially the food exuded the restaurant’s philosophy of “humanity towards others”. From dressing the restaurant with reclaimed furniture, staffing it with friendly and helpful servers and preparing wonderfully fresh and flavorful food (at reasonable prices), Ubuntu has successfully created a niche following in the community of Napa (and beyondâ€”the neighboring table was from New York). Ubuntu is easily able to compete with more traditional restaurants like Cole’s Chop House next door. We give Ubuntu 5 corks out of 5.