A Natural Emerges
Wednesday, February 25, 2009
NAPA, Calif. -- He's a product of Cleveland who says he was "the worst cook in the kitchen" when he started his career. Years later, in a restaurant near San Francisco, he became so obsessed with pork that he created a 14-course tasting menu to celebrate it.
Now, at a California wine country restaurant that shares its quarters with a yoga studio and draws on Zulu for its name, Jeremy Fox is serving a meatless menu that is capturing the interest of some of the biggest names in the food business and changing the way many of his customers look at vegetables.
Cauliflower is the Ugly Betty of the garden, right? At Ubuntu, Fox reveals the lowly vegetable's inner beauty in a dish that layers roasted, pureed and raw cauliflower in individual cast-iron pots and gets its seductive kick from vadouvan, a trendy Indian spice blend. Even if you think you don't like cauliflower, this recipe will change your mind.
"Oh, my God! It was the piece de resistance," says Jean-Georges Vongerichten, who lunched at Ubuntu last June but remembers the meal as if it were sitting in front of him. The French chef, whose eponymous restaurant in New York is one of a handful of four-star dining rooms there, also marveled at the way Fox served strawberries in place of tomatoes as sauce on a margherita pizza and "the tiniest peas I've ever seen in my life" in a soup garnished with crushed macadamia nuts and chocolate mint. "Spring on a plate," Vongerichten said in praising the dish.
In Fox's hands, pureed carrots work magic in a Technicolor macaroni-and-cheese casserole, while beet pulp is dehydrated, mixed with pistachios and turned into "soil," a textural element on a sampler of beets. Earlier this month, calcots (large scallions) were being prepared in the Catalan style: charred over a fire, wrapped in newspaper to "steam" them, then shed of their skins and dipped in romesco sauce.
"I like to impress with everyday vegetables," says Fox, 32. What distinguishes Ubuntu from so many of its flesh-free brethren are plates of imagination and skill, based on impeccable ingredients. Its dishes don't taste like accompaniments or afterthoughts, but fully developed compositions. Blood sausage is one of the last things you'd expect to find in a place like this, but Fox makes a convincing facsimile that involves Italian black rice, apple, radishes, onion and sweet spices.
In a study released last year, Vegetarian Times magazine reported that 3.2 percent of adults in the United States said they followed a vegetarian diet and another 10 percent said they adhered to a "vegetarian-inclined" eating plan. Ubuntu is the rare breed of restaurant that satisfies those demographics as well as those for whom meat isn't a four-letter word.
To check out the chef's larder, you have to drive six miles from the restaurant, where his source of inspiration is a one-acre garden with a view of Mount George. Together with a small greenhouse, it provides up to half of what Ubuntu needs for its menu in the cold months and about 75 percent in summer. Plans call for doubling the size of the plot this summer, says the chef, a move that "could put us close to growing everything." Vivid even in late fall, when I visited, the ground was a carefully tended bouquet of giant red mustard greens and brilliant orange nasturtiums. No fewer than 10 types of radishes could be counted.
When Fox calls something fresh, he means it; what's picked early in the morning is at the restaurant by the afternoon.
The luxury of a garden that provides a restaurant with most of its ingredients is not without its little challenges. Fox, who visits the plot once a week, says it "forces me to be more flexible." The elongated forono beets, among other things, don't just appear on demand. The chef's strategy is reflected in his menu, a concise dozen or so dishes. Still, getting to focus exclusively on vegetables means Fox has time to play with them, to observe them in different growing stages and see how they might be used in less-traditional but nevertheless delicious ways. When they're young, he points out, his carrots are the size of thumbtacks and as sweet as candy. Before they're mature, Fox might clip off their not-yet-bitter green tops and swirl them into pesto. "We try to use everything," he says. Those carrot tops are also pressed into service as liners separating bowls from plates, to keep dishes from slipping and thereby saving on linens.
The airy dining room at Ubuntu (a Zulu word that means "humanity toward others") makes as green a statement as the garden. Much of the decor is repurposed or salvaged; the floors are lined with what used to be shipping crates, and most of the chairs and tables come from movie sets. The long communal table running nearly the length of the rock-walled dining room? It's part of a felled redwood tree, recrafted by a local environmentalist. A quartet of ghostlike ceramic statues, standing side by side, completes the interior. One of the four figures is standing on his head in a signature yoga position. Appropriately, the collection is known as "Alternative Perspective."
As for that yoga studio, it's located behind smoked glass on the second floor of Ubuntu, and though its presence initially concerned Fox, he thinks the two businesses make good housemates. It's not uncommon to see students stroll through Ubuntu's door, mats in hand, but "there are no sweaty people" interrupting anyone's meal, the chef says.