Ubuntu – Philosophy to Food
Someone was bound to combine two of San Francisco bay area’s favorite pursuits – yoga and food. Ubuntu in California’s Wine Country bills itself as selling just this combination. We visited only the restaurant half of the strange amalgam, but did not fail to appreciate the lithe yogis and yoginis passing by the large bay windows.
I suppose once you have decided to combine a restaurant with a yoga studio, you cannot really serve up cow or pig or any of god’s tasty creatures. So you end up serving vegetarian/vegan food. Sort of. There was egg on the menu.
Vegetarian/vegan food is such a departure from mainstream American tastes and practices that I usually approach it with trepidation. I am always afraid that I will be served some prettily arranged steamed peas and tofu decorated with fresh herbs, and that I am going to do something really seriously nasty. Like write a blog post.
Our visit started auspiciously. We were served bread and butter. The bread was good, as it ought to be. But the butter was quite another thing altogether. It was fresh, white, was-milk-in-a-cow-just-this-morning butter. It brought back childhood memories of my mother making fresh butter on weekend mornings, which used to mean a breakfast of ample amount of just churned butter slathered on slices on white bread, with a generous pour of honey on top. Ubuntu’s butter made me happy and nostalgic. I almost forgot my suspicion of American vegetarian food.
Our first appetizer was Ubuntu’s version of gazpacho. it turned out to be a clear syrup infused with intense melon flavor poured on a plate of, yes, prettily arranged tastes such as ‘rat tail’ radish, fork crushed avocado, ‘banana’ mint, and compressed and blackened melon. None of the put-everything-in-a-blender recipe I use at home. It was sweet and tart and summery just like a gazpacho should be. Man, this meal was going well.
The next plate was a steamed bun filled with burrata cheese topped with crunchy corn and accompanied with a sauce of onions and wild plums. The bun was surrounded by a crown of whole greens beans, so tightly woven together that it was difficult to deconstruct the assembly and start eating. Pretty again but a tad annoying because I wanted to get on with eating. The steamed bun was soft, the cheese was oozy, the corn topping was crunchy, and that was it. The kitchen had not thought to flavor it at least mildly, say, with salt. Yes, the onion-plum sauce was good, but it was a smear on the plate, and not enough to flavor the entire dish. My thoughts, instead of focusing on the food on the table, went to steamed buns filled with pork from the local chinese restaurant. But, no matter, sometime one’s interpretation of a dish can clash with the chef’s intentions. I looked forward to the remaining courses.
The third and fourth courses arrived together – a bean stew and a dish of potatoes and cucumbers. This is where the restaurant veered in the direction of ‘steamed peas’ kind of vegetarianism. The bean stew was texturally quite good with the beans not all mushy and retaining some bite. But, once again, the dish was timidly flavored. There was a hint of heat from chili, but it was the barest hint. There were no sour or sweet components to the dish which left it quite flat tasting. There are a number of vegan Indian daal recipes which could have served as inspiration for this bean stew. Perhaps, something like this?
The potatoes were, well, potatoes. Roasted and then sauteed in plenty of butter to make the skin crackly and crisp. Several types of cucumbers from Ubuntu’s garden accompanied the potatoes. Unfortunately, as the cucumbers sat around with hot potatoes, they lost their crunch and bite and became limp and sort of slippery. The horseradish based sauce accompanying the potatoes was competent but nothing spectacular. The Lady’s Slipper cucumbers added some visual interest to dish, but not much taste. And we still had the dessert to contend with.
In all that I read about Ubuntu before making the trek there, many people talked about the glories of Ubuntu’s garden which they cited as an example of their sustainable approach to eating. They talked about Ubuntu finally having elevated vegetarian food to the same level as meat-centric eating. I give Ubuntu credit for their approach to sustainability, but none for their approach to vegetarian food. Their techniques are good, individual components of their dishes can be very good, but they lack the touch that ties a dish together and elevates it from good to sublime. Nonetheless, an interesting experiment in the context of American food. Except the dessert.
We had mini vegan root beer cupcakes to round out the meal. Really, Ubuntu’s pastry chef? I will not say more. Except that the armpit hair you can see on the cupcakes in the photo above is bronze fennel or something. And that if you want vegan desserts – Scream sorbets are vegan. Elizabeth Falkner of Citizen Cake used to serve avocado ice-cream with sweet cherry tomatoes and wild strawberries. Vegetarian and deliriously delicious.
The coffee was terrific. It was Blue Bottle.