The evening started upstairs, in the yoga studio, for an Iyengar Yoga class with Lavelle Lourde. The studio was just the right size for approximately 20 students. Compared to my usual, bare basics San Francisco studio, Ubuntus’ was plush with artful and serene photos, a pleasant view of the mountains in the distance and a yoga-mat like floor.
Lavelle catered to a variety of different skills sets in the class; her main focus was to help students reach the next level in their practice. At one point we were paired up to help spot each other feel the right position for a headstand (or modified headstand). After class I felt centered and limber and was craving some of the wonderful food and a refreshing drink!
Returning downstairs to the main dining area I took in the well-crafted ambiance of the restaurant. The room exudes a casual yet modern, urban warmth with dark wood tables, an open ceiling and exposed brick walls. My eyes were drawn to the long, inviting bar, the communal table and a large sculpture of people. Complementing the photos from the yoga studio, there are more tranquil large format photos on the walls. As it turns out, the owner, Sandy Lawrence, took the photos during her travels in Asia.
The meal started with an amuse-bouche of cold green garlic and pea shoot soup. The garlic could have been too pungent but the pea shoot mellowed the soup so that the lingering flavor was strong and pleasant. The first course was the artful Snake Salad, which was greens garnished with flowers and ‘soil.’ The salad was followed by a hearty tomato and bean stew; the flavors were rich and I enjoyed the perfect crunchy, olive oil-doused croutons floating on top. Lastly, dessert, called “Purple Haze” for the variety of carrot, was a tasty homage to the to the orange vegetable with carrot sorbet, carrot-carob mousse and a pureed carrot top.
For me, the most interesting ingredient on the menu was the “soil” in the Snake Salad. I tried to guess the ingredients with my eyes closed to isolate my sense of taste. Imagine a dense, earthy ingredient that carried a sweet and slightly nutty flavor. Despite my guesses, I still wasn’t sure what the soil was made of and was very curious about the actual ingredients, so I asked our waiter. She explained that Executive Chef Aaron London creates the soil from seasonal dehydrated pulps (meyer lemon, carrot, tomato, kohlrabi leaf, etc) that are then ground into a powder. The pulp is matched with a ground nut (pistachio, almond, hazel nut, etc.) and biochar (dehydrated and ground-up onion tops, fronds, apple skins, and other, normally non-edible plant materials). Lastly sugar, salt and oil are added to create the soil like consistency.
This organic experimentation and play on words with food is what has made Ubuntu one of the most famous vegetarian restaurants in the San Francisco Bay Area. Furthermore, since 2007, Ubuntu has lead a world-class group of restaurants in a downtown Napa renaissance. Whereas in the past, many Napa Valley visitors would rush up valley to Yountville, St. Helena and Calistoga, some of the freshest food can now be found in downtown Napa. A handful of restaurants, including Ubuntu, are growing much of their own food in a large, biodynamic garden in the former Copia venue. It’s no surprise that the Ubuntu menu rotates around fruits and veggies that are in season and locally sourced.
In fact, community is as vital to the organization as being green. “Ubuntu” is a South African humanist philosophy that centers on community and how people relate to each other and the restaurant and yoga studio have a deep commitment to being a community oriented and green, in as many ways as possible.
As I walked out the door, belly full, I understood why the food was so highly regarded but also understood why Ubuntu was more than just a restaurant; it’s a way of being that caters to both the refined palate as well as simple, honorable principles. And yoga clothes are definitely appropriate!
1140 Main Street,
Napa, CA 94559