I don’t know about you, but I don’t think great thoughts about a restaurant when I hear that it has a yoga studio upstairs and a strictly vegetarian menu. Tell me that a place like this is in the town of Napa—a curiously backward and benighted little burg, given its proximity to the culinary glories of the valley itself—and I’m definitely filing it away as a last-ditch tabbouleh option. Tell me that it’s called Ubuntu, like the African humanist philosophy, and I’m basically positive it’s not for me. But, at the invitation of a PR guy I like, who represents Ubuntu, I tried this place with my wife recently—yoga class first, then lunch, on our way south from St. Helena. (Full disclosure: I did not pay for either yoga or the meal.) The motivation, in part, was that my wife had agreed to a dinner at Cyrus and a night in the wine country (yes, this takes arm-twisting with her), and I was thrilled to be able to offer something more to her taste.
And here’s the surprise: I was so impressed by Ubuntu I was giddy. Now, some of this doubtless had to do with my wife: She’s a Type A yogi (yes, there is such a thing), and I could feel during the yoga class that it was getting a passing grade from her (trust me, this is serious business). But it also had to do with the beauty of the big wood-and-metal room and with how astonishingly good the food was. Despite the yoga and the vaguely New Age–y name, the menu offers truly first-rate California French-Italian that simply doesn’t have any animal flesh.
It’s a curious effect, because nothing else about the cooking calls out vegetarian. Literally nothing. No tofu, no portobellos, not even any tabbouleh. In fact, everything about the food demonstrates a chef absolutely committed to his craft, paying very close attention to the way that that craft is being practiced, and keeping pace with the best in the game. His beet and pear salad was as beautifully presented as any salad I’ve seen, and also as delicious. Same for a plate of farro with root vegetables, and a gratin of butter beans baked with an egg. And the desserts, made by the chef’s wife, were ridiculously good: a vanilla bean “cheesecake” in a jar, and a “float of tart autumn fruits” that was almost freakishly interesting.