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Just a short post from Napa


I’m in Napa for a few days. Had dinner last night at that hot new restaurant everybody’s talking about, Ubuntu, which is vegetarian. I told my server, “I don’t know anything about your menu, so why don’t you just surprise me?” It’s basically a small-plate place, and she paired the wines as well. (Almost everything comes from Ubuntu’s garden, in south Napa.)

Here’s what I had:

1. marinated “forono” beets and “merlin” beet tostones with wheatgrass, goat’s milk labneh and local wheatberries. Wine: 2008 Domaine de Fonstainte (an old fave) Gris de Gris rose, from Corbieres.

2. salad of assorted brassicas and flowering rabes, with miso “bagna cauda,” meyer lemon “sylvetta,” arugula and parmesan cheese. Wine: 2008 Chenin Blanc, Janvier Cuvee Sainte Narcisse, Jasnieres (off-dry).

3. purple rain carrots al rescoldo, cooked in vegetable embers, with carrot crudo, wild celery, kumquat salsa verde. Wine: Gridley Vineyards 2005 Cabernet Franc, Napa Valley.

The wine pairings were seamless and inspired, and I thoroughly enjoyed the meal. On my way out, I spotted, of all people, Charlie Olken (!!!) and his lovely wife, with a few others. Stopped by their table and, although I’d promised myself “no dessert!”, they twisted my arm. The vanilla bean “cheesecake” in a jar, with sour cherries, and crumbled nuts (which my cousin had told me not to miss) sent me into orbit.

Anyway, we talked mostly about (what else?) social media, but there did arise one question: Is vegetarian food harder to pair with wine than meats, poultry and fish? I think it is. If you have a great roast, it’s rugged and potent enough to pair with almost any full-bodied red. But Ubuntu’s veggie fare was so subtle, so transparent, so intricate, I had the feeling that the wine pairings had been carefully and meticulously thought-out.

What do you think?

  1. Had a very similar experience @ Ubuntu a year ago. I’m a vegetarian and agree that their menu and pairings are truly inspired! Creating veggie fare that can stand up to a great Bordeaux is definitely a challenge – it usually involves some fabulous cèpes or other earthy flavors.

  2. Glad to hear you enjoyed Ubuntu, Steve. I fell in love with Ubuntu when I was living in Napa and now make sure to stop in whenever I visit the valley. (Interesting, too, to hear you describe it as the “hot new restaurant everyone is talking about.” Ubuntu opened in 2007, yet it’s so utterly original and wonderful that the “hot new” buzz won’t quit!)

  3. I’ve heard rave reviews about Ubuntu, and I continue to be impressed as I read yours. I agree vegetarian food is harder to pair, their skills are impressive!

  4. Ubuntu is fantastic…a testament to it’s greatness are all of the locals (including so many winemakers) that fill the seats each night. The wine list is thoughtful and eclectic. The staff does a terrific job with pairings.

    Seeing sweaty post-yoga class people walking through the dining room is a little odd though.

  5. I’ve not eaten at Ubuntu, sadly (will when my economy recovers, my Napkin daughter wants to go). But vegetarian fare with wine in general has a lot to do with sauces and with reality of vegetable and herb differences. There is no reason why you can’t connect wine and taste with vegetables in the sorta French tradition. (I’ve had such bad meat wine-food meals in California primarily due to fact they think everything, including sauces, have to be fresh.)
    Call ’em and find out the secret, plz.

  6. I like Ubunbtu and has no problem pairing wine with the food. But I’m probably more of a Hanni-ite when it comes to those kind of things. I know where I stand regarding my tastes and am not bothered if it isn’t a “perfect” match.

    In Fact I just had a Monica from Sardegna with a vegetarian plate of portobello mushrooms, white beans, banana pepper (mild), zucchini and red bell pepper – was just fine!

  7. Wow, after reading about your experience and the comments from some of your other readers, I just might summon the courage to try this vegetarian restaurant. When I eat a vegetarian meal i like to use my fresh ingredients from home!

  8. I’m not a vegetarian, but I’d eat there just for the wine pairings! A Languedoc rose (just has the rouge from Fontsainte, actually), a Loire Chenin (the Loire, so underrated), and a domestic Cab Franc (CF, so underrated). It’s like I was picking the wines out for myself!

    It’s interesting that French wines are chosen for subtle pairings. Cali just doesn’t do subtle as often, unless by subtle one means something that won’t overpower a Tri Tip. Then the one Cali red is Cab Franc, arguably the ultimate food-wine varietal.

  9. So I am sitting at at table for four at Unbuntu last night, with my wife, Steve Eliot, Associate Editor of Connoisseurs’ Guide and Steve Burns, brillaint PR guy.

    In walks Steve Heimoff, gets shown to a table along the way, in between other tables and a little cramped. Before I can even catch his eye, he has negotiated a move to a bigger table. I yell (not obnoxiously, I hope). He looks. We chat. He goes off and sits by himself. My feelings are hurt. :-}

    After he finishes dinner, he comes over, starts to shmooze, we get him a chair, and he does indeed join us for dessert. When the meal is finished, I turn to Steve and say somewhat dramatically for all at the table to hear. OK, dinner for the five us was $250. Your share Steve is $50. His face drops, we all have a giggle. It was, as they say, worth the price of admission.

    And now that Steve has spilled the beans (that is not an intentional vegetarian restaurant pun, thank you very much), I guess I can add a few comments about Ubuntu without stealing his thunder.

    The menu is made up of small plates. With four of us ordering, choose all of the nibbles (salt and sugar seasoned marcona almonds, great olives and the highlight–beer battered garbanzos with sauce romesco).

    Then eight of the dozen possible plates. The borage soup was amazing and, interestingly, the restaurant served it in the middle of the procession of plates rather than at the beginning. We saw why. Deep, earthy, spicy and delicious.

    The beet lovers amongst us loved that plate. We were less enamoured of the flatbread dish. Went strong for the carrots, found the baby turnips (about the size of a small marble) overwhelmed by the thick sauce, had most very positive reactions to the donut filled with burrata and yams (too sweet for some tastes).

    The grits were amazingly good, and would have gone with a rich, midsized Pinot Noir. The wine list did not have a suitable choice so we chose and enjoyed the Gigondas.

    Steve commented on the prime dessert, and I have to add a note about the lemon sorbet float. Wow. Tart, zesty, delicious. Give me two of those on a hot summers day.

    Two items of concern. The food is more sweet than one would expect and the wine list does not exactly cater to that characterisitc. And most of the reds were too heavy for the food. For example, the grits were the heaviest item on the menu it needed Pinot Noir, not Zin or Cab Sauv.

    Still, those are minor quibbles. Our table of four committed carnivores loved Ubuntu and will go back.

    Even if we do not find Steve Heimoff there next time.

  10. I don’t know if my face dropped when Charlie made his crack about paying my share, but I do recall replying to him that, in that case, I was going to start charging him by the word to comment on my blog!

  11. Haven’t tried Ubuntu yet and I kick myself for being negligent in that regard every time (and it’s often) I read things about it like this. We are good friends with Dan, now the former GM there, and had always planned to go. But, now he’s gone; and as they say, “You snooze, you lose…” I did just recently meet the new GM, Naomi, and she is completely charming and I’m sure she will fill his shoes nicely.

    Sorry you had to cancel your La Toque dinner this trip, but we would love to have you in next time you are up…

  12. Charge? By the word?

    I am speechless.

  13. Charlie: I’ve given this a great deal of thought and come to the conclusion that charging commenters by the word is the way to monetize a blog. Five cents per. Therefore, your recent comment will cost you 35 cents. Please make your check payable to

  14. Hi Steve,

    have the vegetarian restaurants in Napa a carnivore’s option – something similar to the token goat’s cheese thingey vegetarians are offered in “normal” restaurants?

  15. Steve, it seems like it is hard for you to do any submission without mentioning social media. I am curious why nobody is talking about seo optimization, keword tracking, and google adwords.

  16. Brett, maybe you can write here about those topics. Sounds like you know more about it than I do.

  17. Case Study: The Hess Collection
    I typed “Napa Wine” into google today and there was Hess, as the #5 ranking in the results query. The Hess website also lists well as #2 for “Vineyards in Napa” and #2 for the keywords “napa winery”.
    As you can imagine, these keywords are a highly sough after referal source.
    The Hess website is very clean looking and also more importantly, is highly functional. However, It is the behind the scenes structure of the website that makes google recognize it for its authority on “Napa Wine”, “Vineyards in Napa”, and “Napa WInery”. All in all, google sends about 4,000 people to every month. You can’t do that with facebook.


  18. Say it ain’t so:

    lierally my favorite restaurant. Too bad.

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