Ubuntu redux

Chatter over Ubuntu continues. With the Chronicle’s Michael Bauer practically giddy (recently naming it among the Top Openings of 2007) it seemed worth another look. Though I was originally skeptical, Chef Jeremy Fox is converting local carnivores to la vida veggie–at least for a meal or two. Originally written for WineTravel.com, this piece is a different take than my usual first to the table, bite and run stuff. In this case, the reviews were already out, and I wanted to really get under the hood and see what the talk was all about.
All I can say is, Viva Brussels sprouts! Enjoy.


Jeremy Fox spends a lot of time thinking about vegetables.

As chef of Napa’s quirky veg-spot, Ubuntu, he’s a master of meat-free dining. But ask this stoic 31-year-old what he truly craves after a long shift serving cauliflower, arugula and rabe and the answer is surprisingly un-Zen.

“Steak,” says Fox. Spoken like a true carnivore. And somehow reassuring to folks more accustomed to bacon than brewer’s yeast on their plates.

Joining the Napa dining scene in late August, Ubuntu is hard to categorize. Housed in a reclaimed 19th century building, it’s a lofty space that brings together an open-kitchen and bar, communal dining and a yoga studio. Restaurant owner and yoga fanatic Sandy Lawrence’s choice of Fox–a former chef de cuisine of Manresa (a top-ranked Bay Area restaurant)–has kept foodies twittering anxiously since its opening.

But don’t please don’t use the v-word to describe Ubuntu. Both Fox and Lawrence (who admits to being an occasional carnivore) shudder at the restaurant being called “vegetarian,” citing the gourmet ghetto that most tofu and sprout eateries fall into. Leaving lentil salads to others, Lawrence leverages Fox’s classical cooking techniques– like drying potato skins, adding highly flavored broths or hickory smoking Brussels sprouts, to intensify and concentrate flavors.

Winter’s signature dish is a cast-iron pot of roasted, pureed and raw cauliflower bubbling with exotic spices. Also on the menu are fried sunchokes and tomato relish; Brussels sprouts with celery root and cider vinegar gastrique; a gently poached egg atop pureed potatoes or a simple plate of baby radishes with fresh butter and sea salt. Fox’s wife, Deanie (also a Manresa alum), handles the desserts, with best bets being a luxurious layered cheesecake in a jar. Menus change up frequently, as produce comes in from the restaurant’s own organic gardens “so don’t expect today’s sprouts to be available a month from now.

And yes, be assured that Fox doesn’t skimp on the dairy (there’s no shortage of butter, cheese and cream. Though it’s not as prevalent as you might expect from a guy who’s worked with some seriously top toques. There are plenty of purely vegan bites that let the natural garden flavors shine through.

You have to wonder, however, if it isn’t a temptation once in a while to resort to chefs’ usual bag of tricks: Demiglace or, sheesh, even some chicken stock to goose up the flavors. Fox shrugs it off. Not really. The guy’s worked with uber-perfectionist Brit chef Gordon Ramsey, after all. He can handle the challenge.

So, is the food actually edible? Critics recently squelched any lingering snickers, comparing Fox’s dishes to those of the nearby French Laundry and gushing over his “pristine” techniques. The restaurant’s impact has even been compared to the opening of Greens (a Bay Area vegetarian institution) in 1979. High praise for a restaurant devoted to the humble cauliflower and Brussels sprout.

Just don’t call it vegetarian.

Check out a photo gallery featuring more of Fox’s dishes–including the cheesecake–as well the interior of the restaurant. Click here.