Editor's note: In late 2011 Ubuntu closed for a "sabbatical", which appears to have become permanent. A shame. The notes below are of historical interest only.
Ubuntu ("essence of life") is in the Main Street of Napa, in the heart of California wine country. The head chef at the time of my visit was Aaron London, who had worked at Ubuntu from within weeks of it opening in August 2007 and who took over from previous head chef Jeremy Fox (who left after a dispute with the restaurant owner in February 2010). Aaron had worked at a range of restaurants in Europe and America (including a six month stint at Daniel in New York) before settling down at Ubuntu, rising from line chef to executive chef.
Ubuntu is that rare thing, a purely vegetarian restaurant. Many of the ingredients used are grown on the farm of the owner. The dining room is a large, airy space (once a mill), with a bar on the left as you enter, and an open kitchen at the far end. There are stone walls and a wooden floor with music playing, though noise levels were tolerable. The place has a casual, relaxed feel to it, with no tablecloths. The menu had nine dishes on offer at around $16 each, and it is suggested that three dishes per person is the way to go (this was plenty in our experience). There is also a four course tasting menu available.
The relatively short wine list starts at $25 and includes selections such as Colme Torrontes Salta 2009 at $25 for a wine that retails at $13, Failla Sonoma Coast Chardonay 2009 at $68 compared to a shop price of $34, and duMOL Estate Russian River Pinot Noir 2008 at a bargain $110 considering the wine retails at $96. There are plenty of wines around the $50 mark and only a few wines priced over $100, with Romanee Conti Echezaux 2006 at $610 for a wine that will set you back $458 to buy. We drank Kistler Les Noisetiers 2007 at a bargain $75 for a wine that retails at $71. Bread consisted of rustic country bread bought in from the Bottle Bakery in St Helena, and was very pleasant (14/20).
An amuse-bouche was miso-cured egg yolks and green spring onions, fried tempura style, with a sauce of cherries and chilli, decorated with nasturtium flowers. The tempura batter was light and the sauce added a little bite to the dish (14/20). A dish of peas (from Half Moon bay) and baby carrots featured tasty peas and a hint of spice in the lemongrass oil broth in which they rested, with peanuts providing a texture contrast, with a little fennel and smoked mushrooms completing the dish (16/20),
The "garden snake" is an arrangement of leaves, roots and flowers, coiled around the plate on which it was served. The leaves are garnished with additional herbs and dressed with lemon oil. This was a very pleasant dish and the leaves were certainly very fresh, though I would have liked a little more dressing (14/20). Asparagus and burrata was good, the young asparagus having very good flavor, cooked with salt and pepper potato chip crumbs, with potato skin puree, and pine nuts (15/20). The dish that I did not think really worked was one with Sicilian pasta with turnips, green garlic and orange sauce in a Parmesan broth, the problem being that the orange flavour was much too strong, dominating the dish (12/20). My favourite dish was a comforting yellow eye bean stew, based on a stock of tomatoes, rosemary, borage leaf and beans with torn bread, which had excellent depth of flavour and accurate seasoning (16/20). Foccacia and pecorino was nicely made, the bread having nice, soft texture (15/20).
For dessert, cookies were served warm, fresh from the oven, and had very soft texture (15/20). Service was casual but very friendly. The bill came to $162 (£99) per person, but with a generous amount of excellent wine. Overall this was a thoroughly enjoyable meal, the kind of vegetarian restaurant that I always hoped existed somewhere but I could never find.