Reviewing Napa’s Michelin Star Contenders for 2011: Ubuntu Restaurant, Downtown Napa

These days, when a rising-star chef leaves any given restaurant, it has the potential to become news. Here in the Bay Area, we’ve seen this phenomenon recently with Nate Appleman exiting SPQR and with Jeremy Fox leaving Ubuntu. For the guests who have come to appreciate these restaurants, the departure of an executive chef can introduce many question marks, and quite possibly, a large degree of doubt. It all makes perfect sense, of course, since today’s professional chefs now have true rock-star potential. When David Lee Roth left Van Halen, it was certainly an issue for the band’s early followers, and when it turned out that Sammy Hagar couldn’t fill Roth’s shoes (or his spandex leotard), some Van Halen fans became bitter at the situation. In the restaurant business, creativity trades at the same premium, which is why professional chefs can now garner such a cult following among diners. When these chefs leave very the restaurants that they helped to build, it matters to folks.

Talking to some friends who live and cook in San Francisco, I’ve actually heard that right now, SPQR is even better than ever under Matt Accarrino, which is wonderful news to my ears. As a fan of great food, I hate to see a solid restaurant fall off. I must confess, however, that I haven’t even been to SPQR since Appleman has left, so this vote of confidence for SPQR is strictly second-hand info. As for Ubuntu in Napa, I can actually speak from personal experience: I dined there tonight, and I was floored by the level of sophistication, freshness, and creativity. There is no doubt in my mind that chef Aaron London will retain Ubuntu’s newly-granted Michelin star in the upcoming 2011 Guide. Like a great wine, London’s menu was cerebral enough for the avid diner, but approachable enough for the average diner. And for an old cook like myself, deconstructing Ubuntu’s dishes is nearly as enjoyable as tasting them.

Though I hadn’t expected it, I sampled Ubuntu’s entire menu this evening, minus just one dish. With a couple small desserts thrown into the mix, tonight’s feast at Ubuntu was a 12-course session of vegetarian bliss. Yes, vegetarian bliss: I said it. But honestly, for anyone who truly appreciates food, Ubuntu should rank as one of Napa’s top restaurants, and perhaps even the most important destination among the entire field of Michelin-star joints. But before I get too carried away, I have to disclose my own connection with Ubuntu: I have some friends who work in the kitchen, while my date for the evening actually had roommates who work in the kitchen. The Napa Valley is beyond small, believe me, and it’s like that for the folks who’ve spent any time toiling in restaurants or working here in the hospitality business. But the local VIP treatment is a nice perk.

This review, therefore, is unofficial and totally off the record. I don’t need to be called out for being biased — I am biased, in this case. However, to not mention Ubuntu would also be extremely remiss, especially for a blog that emphasizes the Napa restaurant scene. Look, I certainly have every intention of raving about Ubuntu in my personal life, so it’s only fair to rave about Ubuntu here as well. It ranks as one of my best meals this year. That being said, I did try to snap a few photos from the dinner tonight, but even with a window table and a daylight reservation, the early (almost) fall sunset offered very little in the way of good, natural lighting. It’s too bad, really, but I just can’t run mediocre pictures of great dishes. I don’t see the point. But I do have Ubuntu’s menu from the evening, which you can always click for a larger view. I sampled everything but the Rancho Gordo bean stew.

As for descriptions of the meal, I’m too full to even think about it right now. And anyway, this review is off the record, no? But there are definitely dishes — like the fermented green fig ribollita, or the cantaloupe gazpacho, or the burrata-stuffed steam bun with tomato aigre doux — that I’ll certainly be evangelizing tomorrow.

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