NAPA, Calif. (TheStreet) -- When most people come to the Napa Valley they think of two things -- wine and food -- and this season's harvest of new restaurants won't disappoint: Morimoto Napa by Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto serves innovative Japanese fusion cuisine from foie gras terrine to toro, and Rustic serves Francis Ford Coppola's most beloved recipes as an expansion of his winery in Geyserville with a wood-fire menu ranging from Argentine short ribs to Marrakech Lamb and Sofia pizza.
-- in a perfectly unassuming two-story 19th century brick building that is also home to a boutique and yoga studio -- isn't new, after three years it is still revolutionary.
Ubuntu won its first Michelin star this year, and New York Times critic Frank Bruni called its opening one of the two best in the U.S. for the year. It still isn't the most awarded in Napa, since
in Healdsburg has a two-Star Michelin rating, and
has three. But any star is short of groundbreaking for a vegetarian restaurant, given the fickle meat-minded culinary palettes stalking the area. Virtually every dinner seating has some sort of blogger or critic snapping food photos and tweeting a 140-character review.
"Ubuntu" is a Zulu word meaning to "generously share with one's community," and this Napa Valley restaurant features a communal table, open kitchen and local-food ethos.
The name prepares diners for fusion or an Asian-theme cuisine, but really the word "Ubuntu" is derived from Zulu, meaning to "generously share with one's community." So the key element among the glass doors, lofty dining room with rustic beam ceiling, stacked-stone walls and four abstract ceramic sculptures by Mark Chatterley is really the long communal table facing an open kitchen. (On one side there is also a long bar under a custom wine cellar of mainly organic wines.)
On warmer days, the half-dozen tables on the rear patio can be used, and patrons can sit under a canopy of trees just below the yoga studio. Here a perky waiter introduces himself and slowly narrates the story of Ubuntu's owner and founder, Sandy Lawrence, a successful Florida businesswoman who became a Napa yogi. One night she went in search of a vegetarian eatery with her fellow practitioners only to find watered-down presentations of meat dishes even at the best Napa restaurants. The creation of Ubuntu followed.
But if Ubuntu was just a vegetarian restaurant there would be no story to tell or Michelin star to rave about. Ubuntu maintains a restaurant garden on Lawrence's property, providing diners with produce that's often harvested just hours before their arrival. The farm was created by well-known Napa gardener Jeff Dawson and features a biodynamic design that mimics the basic principles of nature with "homeopathic doses that enhance the life of soil, plants and animals." What the farm can't produce is sourced locally, delivering one of the freshest meals you'll likely ever encounter outside your own orchard.
Guests are greeted with bread from the bakery around the corner, a simple French loaf with a dollop of butter that actually came from a cow. The waiter returns to explain the menu, listing which vegetables are coming in and out of harvest as you realize that things such as strawberries, cantaloupe and squash aren't a rear-round commodity in locally sustainable cuisine. A small-bites portion of the menu includes marcona almonds with lavender and sea salt and Castelvetrano olives with carrot-top pesto -- meaning the carrot top everyone else throws away is saved at Ubuntu, dehydrated and used as an exquisite spice.
The skilled staff in comfy black T-shirts and scruffy faces will also deliver a Garden Goddess, an arrangement of the day's freshest vegetables that can include fresh lettuces with a drizzle of local olive oil, tomatoes with tapenade made from cantaloupe rinds, and wedges of cucumber with an avocado dip that upstages the best of guacamoles. It's easy to expect the clear cantaloupe and sage gazpacho to disappoint -- after all, how can clear soup taste good -- but instead there is an astonishing sweet taste of blackened melon with crunchy radish and banana mint.
The main course is divided between vegetarian and vegan options such as creamy parmesan polenta with fresh chanterelles or grilled squash with chopped vegetables and a sauce that removes any lingering doubts about whether a vegetarian meal can be as satiating as its meaty competition. Dessert is a blueberry sorbet with tapioca or an order of Carl's Cookies 'n' Milk, made of white chocolate and lavender served warm with ice-cold farm milk or almond milk alternative.
Ubuntu is a testament to the kitchen's new executive chef, Aaron London, who has worked at the restaurant since its fourth week of business, slowly rising through the ranks as line cook and sous chef to executive sous chef for the former chef, Jeremy Fox, who departed earlier this year. London is a native of Sonoma County and a mere 26 years old, having trained beyond his years at New York's Daniel and Café Boulud before moving to Montreal's Toque! and La Chassagnette in France's Provence. He was obviously honed to become America's best garden-to-table chef.
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Michael Martin is the managing editor of JetSetReport.com, a luxury travel and lifestyle guide based in Los Angeles and London. His work has appeared in InStyle, Blackbook, Elle, U.K.'s Red magazine and on ITV and the BBC.