Well, I lucked out with this one – I saw Jasmine’s post and assumed there was no way I’d be able to score a spot. Fortunately, a friend of mine is less easily discouraged than I, and managed to snag an 8:30 reservation.
The two seatings overlapped, with the 5:30 seating at the bar for their entire meal, and the later seating at a 6-person table for the first few courses, then moving to the bar for the remaining courses. This meant we lost out a little in terms of interacting with the chefs at the beginning of the meal, but it gave us the chance to get to know our fellow diners a bit, and by the time we moved to the bar, it felt like we were sharing the experience with friends.
The first course was an apple brunoise flavored with wormwood, topped with apple blossoms, paper-thin slices of watermelon radish, fennel fronds, and bits of sweet, mild Mendocino feta. It was a gorgeous dish (see the closeup in pic #2), almost too pretty to eat. I’ll admit I’m still unclear on the actual flavor of wormwood, and certainly wouldn’t be able to pick it out in a blind tasting, but overall, a lovely start to the evening.
#2: super-ripe ‘bruno’ kiwi, squeezed from the skins
The next course was an ultra-sweet, melon-y tasting kiwi, paired with arugula, Miner’s lettuce, parmesan, and almond. One of the things I loved about Ubuntu was that I would learn a new, non-classic, but perfect flavor combination each time (I will rave about nori, goat cheese, and radishes until the day I die). For this dish, it was the combination of toasted almonds and parmesan, with the nuttiness of one amplifying that of the other. I’m not sure what I’m going to do with it, but I’m filing it away for future use.
The first two courses reminded me of classic flavor combination, sent through a funhouse. The first seemed to be a play on watermelon and feta, with the apple standing in for watermelon, and the slice of watermelon radish for visual reference; the second seemed to be “things that pair with prosciutto”, minus the prosciutto.
#3: peas in a consommé of the shells
I think this was the first course that really knocked everyone out. Tiny, bright-green peas that popped in the mouth, bits of macadamia nut, leaves of chocolate mint, and a crumble of white chocolate, bathed in a crystal clear consommé flavored with pea shells, the flavor changed with each bite, depending on what happened to make it into the spoon at that moment. I heard my friend declare, “it tastes like an Andes candy!” and thought she was insane, because at that moment I was enjoying the purest, most delicious expression of spring, but a few spoonfuls later, with a bit of chocolate, some peas, and a mint leaf all together – there it was. An Andes candy.
#4: escabeche of Monterey sardines & young carrots
Knockout number two. Velvety sardines and tender sweet carrots, balanced by a tart sauce, and a smoky puree of mirepoix flavored with pig trotters and bacon. Baby fava leaves and blossoms completed the dish. I apparently wasn’t listening closely enough when Chef Fox was describing the dish (although to be fair, he is very soft-spoken) and racked my brain trying to figure out the source of the smoky depth of the puree. Maybe it was the proximity to the sardines, but to me it tasted like it had an ultra-smoky bonito component. After this course, we moved to the counter, I asked Chef Syhabout – he just grinned and said, “when in doubt, it’s bacon”.
It was really great to watch the two long-time colleagues and friends cook together – the two chefs were relaxed and in remarkably in sync. I’ve eaten at the counter at Commis before, and while the culture of the kitchen is one of calm and quiet, I could sense some stress as the dining room filled – I felt that I’d be interrupting their flow if I asked questions, and chatting with the chefs would have been out of the question. On this night, the feel was completely different. Soon after we moved to the bar, Chef Syhabout decided he didn’t like the music that was playing, and solicited music selections from the diners. We settled on Duran Duran from my neighbor’s iPhone,
As the familiar opening bars of “Rio” filled the air, they brought out…
#5: ‘hakurei’ turnips glazed in shellfish juices
Knockout number three. Gorgeous, miniscule turnips, a heart of earthy sweetness set off by the slightly bitter glaze, paired with sea urchin, braised turnip leaves rich with brown butter, sorrel, and spring onion. I have to make a note about the wine pairing here, because it was absolutely brilliant. I generally love their wine pairings anyway – the sommelier has a strong preference for aromatic, acidic Alsatian and Loire Valley whites, none of which I know much about, and all of which I enjoy. For this course, she chose a super-funky white Burgundy (Domaine du Meix-Foulot, Mercurey 2004). I think it’s the only barnyard-y white I’ve ever had – in another setting, I probably would have sent it back. With the sea urchin and the turnips, though, it was incredible. It was a stellar match for the earthiness of the turnips, and it seemed to extend the sweet muskiness of the sea urchin forever
#6: slow-roasted guinea fowl
A roulade of guinea hen, paired with thin slices of asparagus, pistachios, and pistachio puree. For me, this was the only true miss of the evening. It wasn’t bad, but after three absolutely phenomenal dishes, this course tasted a little one dimensional. All components could have used a little more salt, too.
#7: assorted heirloom beets el rescoldo
Things got back on track with the next dish – hauntingly smoky beets cooked in ashes, paired with a fantastic crispy pig trotter cake (meatier and less gelatinous than most), enhanced with a drizzle of mustard jus.
#8: citrus caramelized “on the bone”
I can’t remember what the “on the bone” reference was to, but I do remember the sweet slices of tangerine, the celery leaf/olive oil granite, the almost chocolate-y barhi dates, and how brilliantly the combination worked.
#9: torn chocolate brioche, crème fraiche
Like the guinea hen dish, this one seemed a little conventional and suffered in comparison to the rest of the meal. I did love the green strawberries, poached and infused with angelica, but the chocolate brioche, rather than gaining any additional caramel overtones from toasting, ended up feeling just a bit stale. The presentation also reminded me of the various edible “dirt” dishes I’ve had at Coi and Commis (and which I think Manresa made famous) and made me wish they had done a dessert version of that instead.
No matter. Five knockout dishes in a 9-course tasting menu is a pretty stellar hit rate, and I think it’s actually a great sign that the two weakest dishes were also the most conventional. When I spend a lot of money on a meal, I want to be challenged, and I want to learn something. This dinner absolutely succeeded. It sounded like they may consider joint dinners in the future as well. As for his future plans, when asked, Chef Fox dropped a cryptic comment about wanting to move to Oakland, so… fingers crossed.
Ubuntu Restaurant & Yoga Studio
1140 Main Street, Napa, CA 94558
320 Village Lane, Los Gatos, CA 95030
3859 Piedmont Avenue, Oakland, CA 94611