Thursday, July 16, 2009

Ubuntu in Napa: When the Timing is Right

Sometimes there are evenings that have a touch of magic. I think that my dinner with my friend Fran Costigan, the alternative dessert diva, was one of them.
Fran and I both presented at the McDougall Celebrity Chef weekend, and we were tired. It had been very warm outdoors and for that I am thankful. Due to the heat, we decided to get a patio seat at Ubuntu, a "community-focused, vegetable-inspired" restaurant in downtown Napa, the next county inland from the Sonoma County paradise in which I live.

The hour's drive to the restaurant was about all that I could handle with my degree of dragging. But sitting outdoors, surrounded by flowery landscaping and candlelight, changed my mood. And, spending time with Fran was great.

We perused the menu, and as we did so, I saw the waiter sashay by with a flowery salad. I asked what it was, and was told that it was the Carta da Musica. I knew that shortly we'd be eating that gorgeous creation, described as a salad from "snout to tail." The delicate flowers and creative greens which include a French ice plant with a snappy, salty bite (name now forgotten), herbs and arugula was as tasty as it was delicious. It's served on a Sardinian flatbread, with or without truffled pecorino, and the most incredible Trumpet Royale "pancetta", which was incorrectly described as black trumpet mushrooms by both the waiter and chef. But the lightly fried, paper-thin slices of mushrooms that had been smoked had both the mouthfeel and flavor of bacon. Hmmm, may I have a plate of those non-McDougall mushrooms please? (After all they are plant-foods, aren't they?) The pig was surrounded by "dirt" made of dehydrated beets and hazelnuts. I can almost guarantee that you've not had anything like this before.

Along with our salad we had a couple of "tastes" of wine, which are 2 ounce pours for a reasonable, by Napa standards, price of $4 to $6. Perfect amount of wine, especially for the driver.

After the salad we looked at the menu again and ordered the pizzetta. This one had borage (a cucumber-tasting blue flower) tapenade and vegan cheese, for us.

While we waited for our pizzetta, we were served a highly artistic beet dish, compliments of the house, that was incredibly tasty, albeit a bit too precious for my taste. The cubes of gold and red beet with flowers, beet chips and a rhubarb relish made for tasty bites but just bites they were. It may have been an amuse bouche but wasn't presented as such.

And then our pizzetta arrived. It was perfectly cooked and the flavors were bright, with the borage topping made from local Sevillano olives a perfect foil for the perfectly cooked crust. The vegan cheese was a did not distract from, or overwhelm, the wonderful flavors of the fresh summer vegetables. It is just how I like my pizza, crisp crust, light topping and vegetables plus herbs.

The end of the meal was as much a highlight as the beginning. I believe that the dessert that we had was called a "creamsicle" but it's not like any that I've ever had. I never cared for creamsicles so was reluctant to order this one. But I am glad that we did. My description (no photo, sorry, my camera battery died and Fran shot photos. It was too dark by dessert.) will not do it justice.

On the bottom of the glass were beet tapioca pearls, with an intense red color. They were topped with orange sorbet. Mineral (or other fizzy) water was poured over those 2 elements, creating a textured, cold, creamy and spritzy dessert. You have to experience it to get what it's all about. I can just say, that as a mostly non-citified woman at this point, I don't often order $9, non-baked desserts, but I'd get this one again. It was light and delicious and thank goodness, it's nothing like a "creamsicle" except for the orange flavor.

The food and atmosphere of Ubuntu are top notch although the service left me flat, despite our perfectly sweet waiter, named Jeremy, same as the chef, who has a lot to learn about ingredients and wine. Total tab, without tip, for 2 tastes of wine plus a glass, one salad, pizza and dessert was $60, which may fly in Napa or NYC but it's a bit rich for my Sonoma County blood.

I will be going back and we'll see what kind of vegetable treats and tricks Chef Jeremy Fox has up his sleeve in the deep of summer, with all manner of vegetables at his disposal.

If you're going to be in Napa be sure to make reservations and check out their vegetable-inspired cuisine.

Ubuntu also has a yoga studio upstairs. I think that a perfect day for me would be staying at the eco-friendly Gaia Hotel and Spa in American Canyon, taking a yoga class and eating lunch at Ubuntu, and sometime later getting a spa treatment. Something to consider.

BTW, within a day or two, the hot weather vanished and a night on the patio without a jacket would have just been impossibly chilly. So, timing is indeed everything.

Monday, July 06, 2009

The Veggie Queen has Salad Days in Glen Ellen

I am not even sure what that term "Salad Days" means but I just had a chance to spend time with my friend Katie of North Coast Holistics (MI) while she housesits here in Sonoma County. She is staying at a beautiful home in Glen Ellen, where she lived with her ex- years ago. He and his current partner have turned the place into a lush oasis, especially for two salad eaters.

Katie and I picked lettuce and Katie made a salad for us, which is a real treat for me since I am usually the salad-maker.

I learned from Katie that the best way to have the freshest tasting salad is to pick the lettuce leaves and put them into a bowl of cool water. Then you rinse them a few more times and dry them off with a salad spinner, although some people have other methods that involve towels or swinging pillowcases.

We picked so much lettuce, yet hardly made a dent in what was growing (they must be supplying the entire neighborhood with greens as there were more than 20 heads fully fruited), that it created a salad for lunch and another for dinner.

While someone making salad for me was a high point of the day, it was nothing compared to spending a good chunk of a day with a close friend who I don't get to see often enough. When we see one another the time is often too short. I don't regret not spending more time and feel lucky that Katie set aside a day for me. She is well loved here in Sonoma County and many people want to see her. She mentioned that she might come back and housesit somewhere else, and I truly hope that happens.

Now, I long for more lettuce and for more "Salad Days" with Katie.
(PS. I looked up what Salad Days means, and it's a time of innocence. While Katie and I are long past that, I still like the phrase.)