Dinner at Ubuntu was that rare culinary experience that actually taught me something new about food. The meal opened my eyes to the potential of vegetarian cuisine. As someone who adores vegetables, I still feel that meatless dishes are often flat and one-dimensional. They lack that something - chicken stock, bacon, anchovies - that brings a dish to the next level. Vegetarian chefs often feel like they must compensate for meat, using bland tofu, boring portobellos, or vile meat analogs. At Ubuntu, the food is complex, multi-layered, nuanced, and perfectly balanced. The vegetable is elevated to the centerpiece of the plate. Not once did I feel that a bite needed a little kick of something to enhance my experience. Not once did I feel I was missing meat. That this level of excellence was achieved with seasonal ingredients in February is proof of chef Fox's genius. I cannot wait to return when the spring and summer bounties are in full swing.
Standouts were the artichoke and burrata salad and the rightfully famous cauliflower. These were both dishes that blew my mind and baffled my palate.
The artichoke salad featured an outstanding combination of textures - thin and crunchy fried leaves, soft hearts, creamy burrata, and slightly crispy shaved celery. But it was the broth that really amazed both myself and Mrs. Mousse. It was crisp, refreshing, and completely incomprehensible. We sat there trying to analyze it, and finished the dish utterly dumbfounded.
The cauliflower exceeded its reputation. It is incredible that the chef achieves such a wide range of flavors and textures with just one vegetable. I have no idea how he executed it. Frankly, it is indescribable. All I can tell you is go there now and order this dish. It's the best thing I've eaten in 2008. Though the year is still young, it will be tough to top.
We also enjoyed a starter of perfectly fried sunchokes with romesco. Certainly not the most interesting dish of the evening, but very well done and fun to eat. Anson Mills grits with smoked brussels sprouts was outstanding. Mrs. Mousse cooks Anson Mills grits at home all the time, but neither of us could figure out how the chef achieved such a delightfully fluffy texture. Potatoes Robuchon with a slow cooked egg was pure comfort food. The egg was soft and creamy, the potatoes were rich and decadent, and the heaviness of the dish was balanced out with leeks and a lovely sherry vinegar which gave it just the right acid kick.
Sadly, after such an outstanding dinner, dessert was an enormous let down. I am not a conventional "hot fudge sundae" dessert eater. I like my desserts to have interesting flavors, to straddle the line between savory, salty, and sweet. Perhaps the pastry chef was having an off night, but these were among the worst desserts I have ever had.
The bowl of "frosted flakes" with banana and malted milk was a cute concept, and normally I love nostalgic dishes that are all grown up. But this was cloyingly sweet and difficult to finish. Just as the cauliflower exceeded my expectations, the famous cheesecake was, quite simply, awful. Once again, the flavors were way too sweet, and lacked the tartness I associate with good cheesecake. I can't remember the last time I left so much dessert on my plate, but this was just unpleasant to eat. I am genuinely confused as to what others have seen in this dessert.
It was a really sad ending to an otherwise fantastic meal. The whole drive home, Mrs. Mousse and I were talking about stopping by a store to buy chips or nuts so we could cleanse our palates from those cloying flavors. Our suspicion is that the chef eschews refined sugar in favor of "alternative" sweeteners such as date sugar and brown rice syrup. These sweeteners give desserts an odd flavor that I wholeheartedly dislike. Also, chefs tend to use them in excess, resulting in desserts that are way too sweet. Look, I don't eat dessert to be healthy. Give me the real stuff or I'll pass.
It's sad when a meal ends on such a low note, because that is what you tend to remember. Fortunately, the savory part of our dinner was so lovely that we were eventually able to get over the ending. I will definitely return, but next time I will skip dessert.
We arrived without reservations on a Saturday at 6:30 and happily scored the last two seats at the bar. Bar seating seems like a safe bet for walk ins, as we saw many spots open up during our meal. There was also communal table seating available in 30-45 minutes. There were no private tables available until 9pm.
Service was excellent. Our server (who was the bartender) made spot-on recommendations about the food, and did a good job pacing things. She was engaged and available. Everything came out nice and hot (except the salad, naturally).
Prices are very reasonable, particularly given the pedigree of the ingredients and the reputation of the chef. Portions were very generous considering that everything is priced under $15. Dinner for two, including two drinks, tax, and tip, came to under $100. We went home stuffed.
Though I was pleased to find draft beer available, I wish they would carry a lighter option. My IPA was just too strong for many of the light and delicate dishes, and I ended up sticking to water for most of the meal. The alternative was an amber ale which would have had the same problem. A pilsner or a wheat beer would be far better suited for most of the dishes.
Overall, I highly recommend Ubuntu. The food in unlike anything being served in the Bay Area. The dishes are sophisticated, the ingredients are impeccable, the technique is flawless. The only reason the economics of this place works is because they aren't spending money on expensive proteins. I agree with Bauer's assessment that this is 4 star food at 2 star prices.
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