Ubuntu Executive Chef Aaron London learned about his James Beard nomination for Rising Star Chef, not from a phone call, but on Twitter – nine simultaneous tweets from friends. This young 27-year old CIA Hyde Park alumnus already has back-to-back Michelin stars for Ubuntu Restaurant under his belt, and several years working at renowned restaurants in France, Canada and the U.S. including Daniel and Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York, but he has only just begun.
Ubuntu is a restaurant that focuses on vegetables as a culinary specialty, using its own organically and biodynamically-grown produce from a garden high up Monticello Road in Napa. Chef London, who hasn’t owned a car since he was 18, bikes up the steep roads three to four times a week to see what is at its peak of flavor. Chef London’s menu has always been driven by “product first, concept second” but it goes beyond basic seasonality. He speaks about the nuance of weather on the quality of the produce like a vintner might speak of vintage on the quality of the wine, discussing how 2011 is much better than the cooler 2010 season. At the garden, he focuses on the “micro-seasonal” vegetables, for example, the forona beets that popped up for a brief seven days during the spring. For Chef London, micro-seasonality is so important to him that he “keeps the menu tight – no more than 10 items at a time.”
When he prepares his menu, his objective is to create and describe dishes that are “expressive and recognizable, to win diners over to the value of the ingredients in front of them” – not only in terms of flavor but of seasonal scarcity and the fact that organic produce cooks down more and therefore requires greater input. Chef is able to identify with these guests because he – and all of his sous chefs – are non-vegetarian.
But he doesn’t want Ubuntu to be cast as a vegetarian restaurant although most of the dishes are, thinking that the word vegetarian focuses on dietary limitations vs. the universe of flavors that are achievable. Rather, he views Ubuntu as a restaurant that has a specialty in vegetables, like a chop house specializes in meats. Ubuntu has apparently been successful in communicating this message because the majority of their customers are not vegetarian. If they get 600 guests in a week, Chef London says that perhaps 100 (17%) will be vegetarian and 20 vegan (3%).
The dishes at Ubuntu are visually appealing, with a palate of natural colors and artful presentations. The flavors are vibrant and satisfying without being heavy, for example, cantaloupe and sage gazpacho, Catalan-style chickpeas in romesco sauce, ‘seville’ orange pearl pasta with wild fennel chili verde, creamy grits with strawberry soffrito, or warm foccacia with truffled pecorino and apricot-almond agrodolce.
The international wine list is thoughtfully selected and shows that wine does go well with vegetables, for example, an aromatic, dry Muller Thurgau from Alto Adige or an exquisite dry but fruity rose from the Marche made from Sangiovese and Montepulciano. While the list includes Cabernet Sauvignon, the reds tend towards the lighter and rounder Pinot Noirs, Tempranillo, Sangiovese, Grenache and Cabernet Francs.
The organic ambiance flows in the dining room with its old brick walls, warm-colored art and wood tables. With its spacious, light-filled dining room, warm masonry walls and open kitchen nearby, one truly feels connected with the food.
Ubuntu will be closed for winter sabbatical beginning November 21st and re-open in the spring of 2012. Chef London will use the time to travel and explore, using the inspirations he gains to create new and exciting menus worthy of the bounty from their growing garden. In the meantime, Ubuntu plans to offer a “pop-up” restaurant which would be announced on their website and facebook page. You can also see Chef London at the upcoming Flavor! Napa Valley, our signature food and wine event November 17-20, 2011.
Ubuntu Restaurant is located at 1140 Main Street, Napa, CA 94559. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org, (707) 251-5656 or by visiting the website at www.ubuntunapa.com.
Previously published on www.wine-muse.com