Monday, March 31, 2008

Review of Ubuntu

I don't remember Yelp having a 5000 character limit to reviews before (wasn't it 5000 words?) Whatever. I'm posting my entire Ubuntu review here:

My mom read an article in the New York Times about this restaurant and wondered, since my bf and I like to visit wine country, we like to go out to eat, and I'm a vegetarian, if we'd been here or not. We hadn't but almost immediately made a reservation once we'd read the article, which names Ubuntu as the #2 current up and coming restaurant in the country.

Reservations for the number two up and coming restaurant in the country weren't that hard to get, but there wasn't anything available before 7:30. This is a minor hassle in Napa because most wine tasting rooms close by 5pm and even the few exceptions are closed by 6, so since we had a little time to kill between tasting dozens of wines and eating dinner, we ended up a few blocks down from Ubuntu at Tuscany, a very inviting and comfortable restaurant where we quaffed a superb half bottle of wine and had possibly the best scallop dish ever. I rarely eat seafood but am occasionally tempted by scallops, and the bartender's description of the scallops in a chunky mushroom broth won me over. He was very knowledgeable about their wines and everything on their menu, rattling off everything they had that was vegetarian and everything that wasn't that could be made vegetarian as well as giving us tips about when we can walk in without a reservation and how we can get a fabulous seat overlooking the kitchen on a busy Saturday night. We are definitely going back to Tuscany, but the warm atmosphere, delicious food and wine and outstanding bartender weren't enough to tempt us away from our rendevouz with Ubuntu.

Just as we arrived at Ubuntu and were seated, our eyes caught sight of the communal table in the middle of the room. We immediately felt a strong desire to sit there, but we were told that they were expecting a party of three that was going to be seated there so it was best if we stayed where we were. I had a perfect view of this table our entire time there, and not only did this phantom party of three never show up, there were actually FIVE spots open at the table. I have photographic proof (check for my photo of this restaurant if you don't believe me) and last time I checked, three plus two equaled um...wait, let me get out my fingers and add this! See? The party of three plus the two of us equaled there is room for us at the communal table.

Since we were forbidden a seat at the communal table, we compensated by treating the people at the next table over as if we WERE at a communal table, sharing with them our opinions about how the drinking age should be 18 or maybe even 16, at least for having a glass of wine at your meal. How wrong it is for famous kitchens and big name chefs to have people working for them for months at a time FOR FREE, how unfair it was that we couldn't sit at the communal table as well as a sprinkling of commentary on their choices of food and wine. I hope they weren't trying to have a romantic evening.

Normally when we eat at a restaurant featuring meat, I'm scanning the menu to find the few meatless dishes and possibly making do with the wood fired pizza. For once it was my bf scanning over the menu for something he might like and ordering the pizza. His pizza was actually really good but he ordered it with a duck egg on top. I think he just did it because he could. Put it on the menu as an option, and somebody is sure to order it. That duck egg REALLY did not add anything to the pizza. Myself I ordered some cauliflower dish. I'm not a big fan of cauliflower but I had this fantasy going on in my head that the dish would be so good I'd suddenly be a total "cauliflower is great" convert. That didn't happen, but the dish was okay.

After we were finished with our salad and our entrees, the server came by to say "you never got your soup. Do you still want it?" No apology or anything, she acted like while soup was supposed to be coming out, she was in some parallel universe, actually delivering a bowl of soup to the table, it's not her fault that we got our alternate realities mixed up so that in OUR timeline the soup never appeared. That was her basic attitude throughout the meal, and I'd say that Ubuntu suffers what a lot of restaurants around Napa and Sonoma suffer: a lack of qualified, experienced waitstaff. Put this restaurant down in the center of San Francisco and they would probably have a cadre of overqualified applicants, but in wine country it's an overabundance of good food, good cheese (yes, cheese around these parts gets it's own category separate from food because it's THAT GOOD) and good wine with a lack of experienced people to serve it to you. There was another server who was just circling the room like a shark, smiling at everyone and everything. She made eye contact with me and smiled at me just at a moment when I wanted something and I thought "oh great, I've got her attention" but then she just floated on by, as if she were a phantom, just like the party of three that was going to sit at that communal table and magically take up the five open spots.

This place has a yoga studio right above the restaurant. Well, right above the kitchen really. It's kind of this big THING just sitting atop the kitchen going "hi, I'm an empty yoga studio that you can kind of see into". It reminds me of Blake's (Robert Downey Jr) place in the movie "Two Girls and A Guy", where Blake has an uber cool apartment with this upstairs loft kind of thing enclosed with rice paper walls and sliding doors that are translucent and while Heather Graham and Robert Downey Jr are pleasuring each other behind the rice paper, Blake's OTHER girlfriend is moping down below and downing shots of tequila or something. I just think it looks weird plopped down right there, but on the other hand, if there were an actual yoga class going on with people doing their asanas or maybe if you could just barely make out Heather Graham and Robert Downey Jr getting it on, it might actually add to the atmosphere the way a totally boring and empty box of ricepaper overshadowing the room below does not. My bf doesn't know anything about that though, since he just had a view of the parking lot across the street.

But anyway, I was talking about the soup wayyyyy back up there somewhere...heck yes we wanted our yellow eye bean soup, and it turned out to be the star of the whole meal. We ended up fighting over this delicious bowl of deliciousness, with its smoky, smooth, creamy beans, like navy beans only better, and some delicious soft yet firm and chewy mystery ingredient. We fought over it a little bit, and it would have been much easier to share if we'd been sitting side by side at the communal table.

In the process of extracting the life stories of those poor people at the table next to us, we found out one of them had a brother who used to work with Jeremy Fox, the chef at Ubuntu, and he pointed him out to us. Not that he really needed pointing out, not only is his picture on the Ubuntu website but he was right there where the food comes out, expediting it and talking to person after person who came up to shake his hand and (I assume) express their pleasure in the meal they just ate. He accepted each person with grace and good humor.

I hope I was as gracious as Jeremy Fox was when I went up to express MY thanks for the meal. It was that time of night when my bf starts passing his half full wine glasses to me because he has to drive us home and I may have been a weeeee bit tipsy. Plus my real motive was to extract the recipe for that yellow eye bean soup out of him, and I can be a little disingenuous when it comes to these things. He was soooo nice. He wrote the ingredients for the soup out for me, gave me the website for the place they get their yellow eye beans from (, which is actually a great site full of recipes and ideas plus loads of exotic beans and a few other interesting things. I spent $70 there today.) and he even gave me his email address in case I had any questions.

I guess I give Ubuntu about three stars for service and ambiance, although if I'd been sitting at the communal table I might have rated it higher. Jeremy Fox, however, gets five stars as a chef and all around great human being. I'm not sure if we'll be back to Ubuntu or not, but we will for sure remember the chef and if/when he goes somewhere else, we'll be watching, forks (or soup spoons) ready.