Restaurant review: Ubuntu revels in nature's best

Unlike 99 percent of dreamers who come to the Napa Valley, Sandy Lawrence, a retired international events planner, had no intention of opening a restaurant — and actually did. She saw an empty furniture showroom on Napa’s Main Street and envisioned a yoga studio and restaurant that serves healthy, local food. Illustrating her personal lifestyle, she named it Ubuntu, a Zulu word that means “humanity to others.”

The first thing I noticed when I walked into this converted 1865 stone building was slender bending silhouettes casting shadows through an opaque mezzanine — yoga class as kinetic decor. The soaring space downstairs has wood floors made from recycled shipping containers and smart tables cut from salvaged lumber, including a long communal one by the bar.

Most important of all, Lawrence found chef and partner Jeremy Fox, who created a menu so unusual and versatile, you hardly notice that it doesn’t include meat. The inspiration for his flavor-layered dishes comes directly from Lawrence’s biodynamic vegetable garden, planted by Napa Valley specialist Jeff Dawson.

For me, the bottom line in any restaurant, no matter how “green,” pure or famous, is the food, and Fox’s cooking grabbed me and didn’t let go.

A “bite” such as a generous pile of tiny fried peppers ($7) — padron, red and yellow cherry — soft and sweet, crunchy with sea salt, delicately smoky with pimenton, could have only come from a home garden.

A “small plate” of radishes ($10) — thinly sliced butter radishes, icicle radishes, watermelon radishes, black Spanish radishes and fetal radishes with tender edible greens — are arranged like a collage against nori-flecked fresh goat cheese, bright mustard sauce and black lava salt. You brush each radish along the rectangular plate, ending with the salt. The sensation in your mouth suggests Japanese kaiseki — a complex dance of tastes in one quiet range.

When I visited a month ago, garden peas were at their apex, still sweet and tender but large. In an act of culinary madness, the kitchen split each pea in half and sent out a huge plate of them in a radiantly green sauce of pureed pea pods enriched with white chocolate, scented with chocolate mint — yes, mint that smells like chocolate — and garnished with macadamia nut crumbs and the tiniest edible pansies. This divine dish was on the nightly nine-course tasting menu ($125 with wine).

Many locals come for a Fox “signature,” cauliflower served in a cast-iron pot ($13), a silky puree scented with mild Indian spices and fresh coriander, textured with roasted flowerettes and shaved raw cauliflower, scooped up with thin toasts.

He also knows how to turn vegetables into meat. A roasted oxheart carrot, glazed in nutty brown butter with toasted hazelnuts, delivers the tender feel of an animal organ.

And for those who just want a pizza, you can’t find a better one than Fox’s mushroom bianco ($16), a buttery crisp crust with an intense, mushroomy topping of shiitakes and king trumpets, smoothed with plenty of cheese.

Pastry chef Deanie Fox’s mignardise, which ends the tasting meal, has tiny Lady apples on a skewer for dipping into warm, bay leaf-scented caramel and then into salty granola. It is one of the best things I’ve ever tasted.

Militant meat eaters who dismiss Ubuntu should reconsider. Such commitment and elevated sensibility has universal appeal.

Ubuntu

Location: 1140 Main St., Napa

Contact: (707) 251-5656; www.ubuntunapa.com

Hours: Dinner Monday-Thursday, Sunday 5:30 to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 10 p.m. lunch Friday-Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

Price range: Bites, $2.50 to $7; small plates $9 to $12, pizza $16, larger plates $13 to $19;  eight-course tasting menu with wine, $125

Recommended dishes: Fried baby peppers, radishes with chevre, mushroom pizza, cauliflower in a cast iron pot; lady apples with caramel

Credit cards: All major

Reservations: Accepted

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