Chefs Deanie and Jeremy Fox in vegetable garden
Photo: Coral von Zumwalt
Purple radishes with mushroom "caviar"…asparagus with creamy slices of chèvre and nori "mayonnaise"…and would you believe a sumptuous carrot-based mac and cheese? Dorothy Allison (who never met a vegetarian meal she didn't want to chase down with a burger) visits a Napa Valley restaurant where the cooking is so seductive, so full of surprises, it could change the way we all think about food.
I like vegetables, I do. But I grew up in the South eating vegetables that had been cooked so far past recognizable that a girlfriend once accused me of serving her green bean sauce rather than actual green beans. She was right, of course. Southern cooks destroy about as many vegetables as we touch. We overcook them, drown them in cream sauce, mistreat them.

I have also been through two solid decades of feminist gatherings dominated by potluck vegetarian meals and radical lectures that cast meat-eating as a sin, vegetables as a virtue. It is no wonder that I have found myself uncomfortable with vegetarian cooking and resentful of an austerity that makes what is not on the plate loom larger than what is.

No matter that I have lived in California for 20 years and learned to love the crisp snap of lightly sautéed snow peas. I remain partial to pan gravy and anything that can be wrapped in bacon. But those meals, for me, are always accompanied by that sense of guilt—a frailty common to those of us who would stop for a fast food hamburger on the way home from the vegetarian potluck. If I were a good girl, I am sure, I would be skinny and a vegetarian. I am neither, and am alternately fiercely proud and woefully chagrined.

So when I started hearing about Ubuntu, a Napa Valley phenomenon that combines a highly praised "vegetable" restaurant with a yoga studio—and that has been listed as one of the ten best new American restaurants in The New York Times, with a chef who was nominated for a 2009 James Beard Foundation Award—I was both intrigued and disconcerted. Would Ubuntu be the kind of place a skeptic like me could visit comfortably?

I decided to make a reservation and find out.

"They don't serve meat, but you don't miss it," was what I had heard from a friend who lived up the valley from the restaurant and had been there. "It's vegetable, not vegetarian." She could have been quoting a press release, but I still wasn't clear on the concept.

Ubuntu is a Zulu term South Africans translate as "humanity toward others," but its deeper meaning addresses the concept of harmony between the land and the people who share that land. Owner Sandy Lawrence, who produced international investment conferences before she founded the restaurant, wanted to put that philosophy into practice by drawing on all that makes Napa unique—the long growing season, the marvelous wines, and the artisans who produce everything from exquisite local-wood tabletops to rich and delicate cheeses. The initial impulse to open the restaurant hit her one night in August 2006. She tells the story of how on that summer evening, after hosting a yoga class at her Napa home, she wanted to provide a relaxing meal for everyone and started calling around to local restaurants. She finally found one that promised to serve a vegetarian meal, which turned out to mean they'd offer shrimp risotto and "leave off the shrimp"—not at all what she had in mind. When Lawrence opened Ubuntu, in 2007, she decided that calling it a "vegetable" restaurant might help overcome some of the prejudices and misunderstandings associated with vegetarian food.

On a sunny afternoon, I got into the car with my girlfriend, Alix, and set out on the two-hour drive from western Sonoma County, where I live, to downtown Napa and the block of restaurants whose centerpiece is the stone-walled Ubuntu. Along the way I thought about the pride I take in cooking my family recipes, and about my life as a meat-eating, salt-shaking mama who fries entirely too many potatoes in bacon fat. Maybe it was time for something new. Maybe I had finally lived long enough in California to eat sautéed zucchini slices as if they were hot wings. I could try, anyway.

Once we were seated in the warm, sunlit dining room—with a stone oven at the back and bright collages hanging on the walls—I chatted with Jeremy Fox, the chef, and his wife, Deanie, the pastry chef. Lawrence had hired them away from Manresa, a popular restaurant in Los Gatos, south of San Francisco, where they had won much acclaim for their French-Spanish creations. I was heartened when they told me that they are not vegetarian—except in the de facto sense: They're busy cooks who eat in the place where they spend most of their time. Nor do they run upstairs and do yoga.

As we looked at the menu, I remembered what my friend who'd been to Ubuntu before had said: "You have to try their carrot gnocchi." Carrot gnocchi? Where did that idea come from?

"It was the pasta extruder," Jeremy explained. Using the appliance to make his own pasta had inspired Jeremy to experiment. He'd had a mac and cheese dish on the menu, but it was heavy with fat and cream and he wanted to lighten it up. He came up with the notion of using carrots to make gnocchi, and he decided to add French Mimolette cheese because it was orange like the carrots and made the gnocchi rich and bright. That accident of color brought the whole dish together; he then tossed in some fresh orange juice to sweeten the sharp cheese, and a little tarragon, just because—and presto, he had a signature dish.

The chance to be inventive in this way was a big part of why Jeremy and Deanie signed on with Ubuntu when Lawrence called. They jumped at the challenge to create a unique cuisine, to be part of a philosophy that sees cooking and food as tied into a larger community life. At Ubuntu, they could also help influence and build on the growing movement toward less meat-centric dining.

Lawrence lives up the hill from Ubuntu, and it is her sprawling garden that provides most of the restaurant's produce; the rest comes from local farmers. In Lawrence's organic garden, crops are grown according to biodynamic methods, which treat the plants as part of a living, self-sustaining whole. They are carefully selected, arranged in adjacent beds, and rotated to keep the soil healthy. Kitchen staff work in the garden one morning a week, bringing the produce to the restaurant to clean it, then returning the compost scraps so they can nourish the soil.

Jeremy and Deanie told me about the constant inspiration they get from being around such extraordinary vegetables and fruits. For instance, they've been cooking with less butter and more vegetable juices and essences. And since juicing fresh produce for sauces leaves so much pulp—which usually gets thrown into the compost—they started dehydrating the pulp, reducing it to powder, and, along with olive oil and ground nuts, using it to flavor sauces. Jeremy told me he also likes to serve that pulp mixture, which he calls "soil," in little mounds into which one can dip a spear of asparagus or roll a bite of kohlrabi.

It wasn't until Alix and I were about to start our meal that I realized that, more than shame or uncertainty, what I felt most when I contemplated cooking with vegetables was fear. I feared my ignorance and my prejudices, and worse, what my appetites reveal about me. It is not that I get out of bed to devour pints of ice cream in the dark of night but that I am sure nothing simple and fresh will ever satisfy my basic hungers.

Appetizers came. As I nibbled a lavender-dusted almond, I looked down on a plate of asparagus that had been cut into various shapes and separated with pale slices of chèvre and little bright green dimples of nori sauce—which was like a dried-seaweed mayonnaise. The dish was almost too pretty to disturb but too tasty to leave untouched. There was also a plate of sliced radishes in various colors, laid out between little mounds of chopped black mushrooms that Jeremy called "caviar," that tasted less of salt and more of the garden. I took a bite of asparagus, and tried a slice of paper-thin white radish with a little chèvre. The light in the room was gold and pink, my mouth was salt and sweet, and my tongue seemed to have woken up. These were vegetables I recognized, but they tasted like nothing I knew. The flavors were a surprise, a seduction.

"Might not miss the meat too much," I started thinking. I tasted another purple radish. Had I ever had one of these before? I sipped a little wine and tried more of the nori sauce. How was this made? Could I make it at home? It might be worth the trouble to try. I wanted to run my fingertip across each plate, to taste the mushroom caviar with the asparagus or with the heirloom tomatoes salad , fragrant with juniper and basil, that had just been set on our table.

I have always liked beets, and those at Ubuntu came in half a dozen colors, fresh, sweet, with a pleasantly bitter snap, and cut into tiny squares chopped so fine they were a mosaic bed of color and intensity.

"I didn't know beets could taste like this!" I told the woman who brought the plate.

I started daydreaming about coming back for the cauliflower in a cast-iron pot , one of Jeremy's specialties, or the flatbread baked in Ubuntu's stone oven and showered with arugula and truffled Pecorino.

The desserts equaled the entrées in complexity and surprise: We had an intensely creamy white chocolate parfait brightened with Meyer lemon; a vanilla bean cheesecake topped with sour cherries and served in a jar; and roasted strawberries paired with watermelon ice, lime parfait, and edible flowers . Jeremy told me that Deanie's vegan floats (sublime concoctions like the creamsicle sorbet float with hibiscus-beet soda, citrus, and raspberries) are a huge hit with the meat-eating chefs who come to the restaurant. They love them.

Ubuntu's food is to be tasted slowly, remarked on, and tasted again. This is put-your-head-back-and-your-feet-up food, take-your-time-and-close-your-eyes food—and that I understand completely.

Did Ubuntu convert me? Did I go home to throw out all my meat-lover's cookbooks and start growing purple radishes in containers in the backyard? No. What Ubuntu did for me was wash away some of the worst of my guilt and fear, and let me begin to contemplate the idea of cooking a meatless meal without embarrassing myself. I find myself thinking in a new way about vegetables—far less puritanical and more adventuresome. When I see something mysterious and leafy at the farmers' market, I don't back away. I reach for it. I experiment—avoiding the almost tasteless plastic-wrapped vegetables in the supermarket and choosing produce that is new and tender and grown just down the road.

What Ubuntu showcases is an innovative style of cooking that welcomes experimentation and the fresh taste of vegetables not drenched in sauces or set to the side as an afterthought. This cooking slows the meal down. "Don't hurry," these dishes whisper. "Take your time." This food holds you in place like a good yoga stretch, and lets you feel yourself a part of something larger than appetite. Think about what you are eating and where you are. Realize how unique this peppery radish is, how surprising the contrast between three or four kinds of fresh greens.

For someone like me who has always been in a rush, too often late, and far too prone to ignoring what is happening in the moment, it is like a moment of prayer—or a reprise of that old California mantra "Be here now."

Get the recipes for 9 delicious vegetarian dishes from Ubuntu


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