19 March 2008
Two Survive. Now, to Choose
WHEN I set out to sample more than a dozen of the most promising new restaurants around the country, I knew that I’d have some special meals, and I suspected that I’d want to pack up a few of the restaurants and bring them back to New York.
But I didn’t expect to find myself as blissed-out as I was while dining at the two places that have made it to this final installment of “Restaurant Survivor.”
I loved them both. Midway through dinner at each, I realized that I couldn’t stop smiling, because I was so excited to be introduced to this restaurant and so eager to introduce it to others.
Neither is quite like any other restaurant I know. Choosing a favorite is nearly impossible, and for many weeks I delayed or I dithered, deciding that one had a rightful edge over the other, only to reverse the decision seconds later.
The dithering stops here.
1140 Main Street, Napa, Calif.; (707) 251-5656.www.ubuntunapa.com
The restaurant’s name is Zulu for “humanity toward others.” Its Web site makes clear, in a section titled “our carbon footprint,” that employees are encouraged “to walk or bike to work.”
And if you eat during the day or early at night, women in tights and men in sweats may swan past your table on their way to an attached yoga studio at the top of a staircase from the dining room.
Do I even have to write the next sentence? The food is vegetarian.
It’s also proof that you can do away with all flesh and hold onto hedonism, at least if you keep enough butter, cream, cheese and wine at hand. Ubuntu is where virtue meets naughty sensuality. It’s the Angelina Jolie of restaurants.
“Where’s the brown rice?” asked my friend Jennifer as we studied the menu.
We didn’t spot a grain of it.
“And the tofu?” she wondered.
None of that, either.
What we saw instead were marcona almonds dusted with sea salt (no shock) and lavender sugar (big surprise). We ordered some to take the edge off our hunger as we sipped pinot noir and chardonnay from a list that emphasizes biodynamic vineyards and does justice to the restaurant’s location in the heart of American wine country.
The nuts set the tone for the rest of the meal, establishing Ubuntu’s talent for presenting the familiar, be it almonds or avocado, in a form more rarefied, and with seasonings more nuanced, than you expect.
Jeremy Fox, the chef, isn’t vegetarian and doesn’t do yoga. He was hired by Ubuntu’s owner, Sandy Lawrence, not for his tantric bona fides but for his kitchen know-how, honed at such acclaimed restaurants as Manresa in Los Gatos, Calif.
And he has access to both the principled farmers in Northern California and to Ubuntu’s own gardens and orchard, a short drive away, where he gets the restaurant’s sublime greens — red Russian kale, Winterbor kale, Bordeaux spinach, tatsoi.
Our seven-course tasting menu ($70) was an undeniably leafy affair, but Mr. Fox seldom asked lettuce to carry the load. He’s wiser and more decadent than that.
So the greens in the salad at the start of our meal came with Comice pear and, more crucially, creamy, dreamy burrata. The greens and baby carrots in a subsequent dish had magical spicing: the restaurant’s own vadouvan, a mild French curry mix that Mr. Fox said had become popular in San Francisco restaurants in recent years.
Ubuntu makes its own vadouvan, amplifying the citrus notes among the coriander, shallots, garlic, fenugreek, cardamom, turmeric and chilies. And the results — at once sharp and round, with a blooming start and a lingering finish — are best showcased in a cast-iron dish of cauliflower three ways ($13) that we added to our tasting menu. The cauliflower was alternately roasted in thin slices, puréed with cream, and chopped raw into a crunchy sort of couscous. The sauce over it was vadouvan mixed with a significant measure of browned butter.
To read the menu, roasted local frisée was the star of a subsequent dish. To get the dish was to discover otherwise. A poached egg, its yolk as bright as a sunflower, cozied up to a hunk of crisp brioche rich enough to be pound cake. It was eggs and toast as they might be on Olympus, ambrosial and out of this world.
Then came polenta, rendered silky and white by the addition of goat’s milk whey. It was stippled with bits of black truffle that looked like slender twigs on fresh snow.
And then the meal got even better, because the first of several desserts by Mr. Fox’s wife, Deanie, arrived.
At its bottom were slices of Cara Cara orange, blood orange, ruby grapefruit and candied kumquats. Above them: a pastry cream blended with avocado and lime juice. And above that: an orange granita and condensed milk foam, which I guess is uncondensed condensed milk. The whole of this colorful, carefully layered masterwork had subtle temperature contrasts in addition to its textural contrasts, and tart notes to balance its sweetness.
“Promise me,” Jennifer said, “that if you’re around for my very last meal, you’ll get me this for dessert.”
I can’t, but I can guarantee that the next time I’m in Napa, I’m back at Ubuntu. It calls to mind a ski lodge, spacious and gorgeous, its ceiling over two stories high, its walls made of stone.
The servers are as knowledgeable as they are good-looking (do they get complimentary yoga?), and they’re patient, too. They never panicked as the hour grew late and the restaurant emptied but we didn’t budge.
You don’t just walk out on Angelina. You stay until she makes you go.
1. O YA
9 East Street, Boston; (617) 654-9900.www.oyarestaurantboston.com
With the possible exception of a certain turbulent campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, there may be something to these husband-and-wife tag teams.
At Ubuntu the Foxes successfully divvy up the courses. At O Ya Tim and Nancy Cushman successfully divvy up the emotional impact they want their restaurant to have on you.
Running the kitchen, he takes charge of dazzling, and does so with intricate, stunningly creative dishes grounded in, but not restrained by, Japanese tradition.
Running the front of the house, she takes charge of soothing, and I saw an example of that the moment I arrived.
Two women ahead of me approached the hostess stand and asked her if she had any unreserved tables. She didn’t.
So she gave them a detailed rundown of the restaurants nearby. Then she called the ones that interested the two women. She made them a reservation, gave them walking directions. And off they went — to dine at one of her competitors.
The Cushmans don’t have any children other than O Ya, a fussed-over, tightly clutched baby that Tim Cushman, 55, dreamed about over the decades that he worked as a restaurant consultant, helping other chefs realize their ambitions.
In Los Angeles in the 1980’s, he dined in Nobu Matsuhisa’s restaurant and even, for a few days, worked beside him. Later he traveled to Japan, gathering new ideas.
Nancy, 34, has been there with him and on her own, and is the architect of the impressive sake list at O Ya, whose name is a Japanese expression of curiosity.
The restaurant, plotted with excellence more than profit in mind, reflects extraordinary pride. Although it has just 37 seats, 17 of them at an L-shaped sushi counter, there are as many as five chefs in addition to Mr. Cushman working on a given night. They execute a menu with about 80 savory dishes, few of them simple, and just as many sauces and dressings a night.
The front side of the menu is devoted to sushi and sashimi ($8 to $28 for two or three pieces), almost all of it given embellishments much more elaborate and unexpected than wasabi and shiso.
A raw oyster was crowned with minuscule scoops of ponzu-marinated watermelon and diced cucumbers. It was an ideal palate primer at the start of the meal.
A fried oyster shared its rice bed with a house-made yuzu aioli, a julienne of Japanese leek and “squid bubbles,” a froth of oyster juice, squid ink, olive oil and milk. It was a one-bite affair, but what a bite — briny, creamy, alive with different textures and flavors.
Mr. Cushman’s idea of what belongs on a pedestal of rice isn’t limited to salmon, tuna, eel and uni, though O Ya has all of that. It extends to seared foie gras, which he bathes in balsamic vinegar, chocolate and raisins. I ordered a second piece as soon as I finished the first. There was no way I was leaving O Ya with the memory of just one.
The flip side of the menu has such categories as pork (kurobuta), beef (wagyu) and chicken (poulet rouge), the last of which yielded a “ballotine of chicken wing” ($12) that exemplified the kitchen’s painstaking efforts.
The boned wing had been brined overnight in a mixture including tea and yuzu juice; stuffed with a pâte of ground chicken, shiitake mushrooms and Napa cabbage; and deep-fried. Then it was placed over tangy house-made kimchi and drizzled with scallion ginger oil, fresh yuzu zest and toasted sesame seeds.
My companion marveled, “It’s like a chicken bone just melted in my mouth.”
At the risk of putting my credentials as a carnivore in doubt, I must say that the best dish on the menu — maybe the best dish of my entire journey — came from the menu’s vegetable category.
Called “grilled sashimi of chanterelle and shiitake,” ($18) it seemed to me to settle any and all debate over umami, which has to exist if only to explain why these thinly sliced mushrooms, brushed with soy sauce and a rosemary garlic oil, have such a full, magnificent taste. Sesame gets some credit. In fact sesame gets a lot of credit, contributing to both a froth of porcini and milk that covers the so-called sashimi and to a brittle that’s sprinkled on the froth.
The desserts at O Ya don’t live up to what precedes them. It doesn’t matter.
You might end up spending $125 a person on the restaurant’s modestly portioned dishes. It’s worth it.
The quality of the ingredients, the warmth of the service and the coziness of the setting — a dark, weathered, brick-walled room that was built as a firehouse a century ago and rejects clichéd sushi-bar sleekness — will convince you of that.
And you’ll walk out the restaurant’s inconspicuous front door, off a cobblestone alley in an oddly somnolent neighborhood near the main train station, wondering whether you should keep this little secret or shout it out loud.
I didn’t really have a choice.