Took myself up to Ubuntu for an early dinner yesterday – my meal was excellent, but not revelatory.
I had the tasting menu:
“Amuse” – this was actually a large-ish portion of the sunchoke with romesco appetizer. The sunchokes are delicious – deep fried, they have a nutty, intriguing flavor and appealing texture. The romesco had a good, smoky-sweet flavor, but I found the visible bits of nut (I’m going to guess Marcona almonds) distracting, both visually and texturally. The main problem, though, was in calling a mound of fried starch an “amuse” – they might as well have sent out a cone of Belgian fries. I happily ate them all, then felt them hit me all at once about half an hour later. I struggled a bit through my last two courses because I was so full.
Garden Greens with pear & almond chutney, maple dressing.
I didn’t love this salad – until I tasted it with the wine paired with it. I don’t really like sweet salads in general, and while the nicely gingery chutney was good, and they had a very light hand with the maple dressing, it was overall too sweet for me. However, paired with the 2006 Hopler gruner veltliner, the sweetness receded, and the bite of the greens (which looked and tasted a bit like arugula) became more prominent. The fruit, almond and maple components of the salad also brought out similar characteristics in the wine – I actually felt that the salad may have been designed to complement the wine, rather than the other way around.
And that brings me to pleasant surprise number one – the excellent wine pairings. These pairings may have been some of the most successful I’ve ever tried. Of course, it helped that all of the wines chosen were all of the type I prefer – aromatic, highly acidic, low tannin, light to medium bodied. The sommelier (at least, I assumed she was the sommelier, although she seemed to be multitasking with other server duties as well) had Andrea Immer Robinson’s gift of being able to enthusiastically, clearly and succinctly describe the flavors and characteristics of each wine, and the rationale for each pairing, which I really appreciated.
Up until this point, I felt that my meal had stayed pretty safely within Chez Panisse territory – excellent produce, with minimal manipulation and mostly traditional flavors. I had been hoping for more unusual and thought-provoking combinations - the next course delivered.
Radishes with local chevre and nori.
This was a fantastic raw radish salad with goat cheese flecked with nori. It was visually stunning – a Lilly Pulitzer print of a salad, a riot of delicate pink and green swirls. The nori brought out a seductive earthiness in the goat cheese that played beautifully against the sharp astringency of the radish– I thought of it as a vegetarian miniature surf-and-turf. The radish was dressed with an unusual banyul vinaigrette that made an already excellent wine pairing (2005 Martinsancho verdejo) even better. This was just a brilliant dish, one that forced me to analyze why, exactly, seaweed and goat cheese were so right together.
Cauliflower in a cast-iron pot:
I really, really love cauliflower, and I almost always order it when I find it, so I think that may have been why I wasn’t totally blown away by this dish – I’d already had each major component somewhere else. The deeply caramelized florets at the bottom of the miniature Staub cast iron pot – these had the lightest gloss of lemon, and were wonderfully sweet and earthy. Delicious, but not more delicious than the roasted cauliflower dishes I’ve had at Pizzeria Delfina and Lupa (NYC). The luxurious cauliflower puree on top, with a dusting of vadouvan (a French curry powder) – I can’t remember where, but I’ve had a very similar cauliflower puree somewhere else this year (without the vadouvan). The cauliflower puree was actually closer in texture to Robuchon potatoes than the Robuchon potatoes in the next course.
Farm egg with Robuchon potatoes and red wine:
I was a little disappointed that my egg wasn’t slow-cooked (it was fried over low heat). I love slow-cooked eggs. Anyway, the sauce was a beurre rouge that initially impressed me, but subsequent tastes revealed a lack of the bass note usually provided by pan drippings. This was the only dish I had that made me miss meat (hmm… this dish would be so much better if the sauce had some pan drippings in it… and also, if there was a steak here instead of an egg…). The potatoes had a much lower butter to potato ration than classic Robuchon potatoes would, but I was kind of grateful for that, as this was right about when that big plate of fried sunchokes made their presence known to my satiety center.
The tasting menu listed a chocolate soufflé, but priyapet had given such a strongly positive review of the winter citrus parfait that I asked them if I could substitute it for the soufflé, and they graciously accommodated my request. It had a blood orange granite, blood orange and tangerine segments, Meyer lemon sherbet, rhubarb “gelee” (which actually had a texture more similar to pate de fruit), and a rose and rhubarb soda. It was light and refreshing and reminded me of some of Will Goldfarb’s less insane concoctions at the now closed Room4Dessert in NYC. Given the change of dessert, the sommelier swapped out the port that would have accompanied the soufflé for a champagne and elderflower syrup cocktail to end the night.
Petit-fours were 1) a vegan chocolate-chip mini-cookie with remarkable depth of flavor 2) blood orange pate de fruit 3) a tiny Madeleine and 4) saffron lollipop. All were delicious.
Conclusion: it was a very good meal, with an excellent wine pairing and friendly but professional service. I did hope for more novel flavor combinations at the level of the goat cheese/nori/radish dish, and I will continue to go to Ubuntu in hopes of finding more of them. I also recognize that we’re between seasons right now, and I would love to go back as more veggies hit the market. In the future, I plan to go with several friends, and order as many dishes as possible – as all of the tasting menu dishes are available on the a la carte menu (and even the amuse was an appetizer on the a la carte menu), I don’t think you would miss out by not ordering the tasting menu - *EXCEPT* that you would miss out on the thoughtful wine pairings. I think the list of wines by the glass was pretty long, though, so you could probably have the sommelier tailor a wine pairing for you from that list.