Monday, March 10, 2008

Not a Review of Ubuntu

I really don't want to think of this as a restaurant review, even though I've been to Ubuntu in Napa twice now. The new, upscale vegetable restaurant.
I find restaurant reviewing really hard. I wrote a couple of reviews for San Francisco restaurants when our major reviewer at the paper I worked for had to recuse herself, due to neighborhood dibsies. Yes, dibsies is a word. And restaurant reviewing is really hard.
Nonetheless. OK, Ubuntu again. First time, last November, with Sam and her mum. I didn't write about it then. We ate well, but there were problems. I was inclined to ascribe the problems to poor ordering from the menu. (But why should a menu inflict you with poor ordering options?)
This most recent time, with Anita and Cameron, we avoided our prior pitfall of two almost-identical (and over-peppered) pizzas. But we still got whammied. We ordered the famous cauliflower in an iron pot, and it was still good, if not actually better. A couple of other dishes were quite nice. Everything was beautiful.
But. NaCl!!!
Salty food!
One of the first things that came to the table was fried sunchokes with romesco sauce. My first bite, and I said, "salty." I felt like a ninny, only to discover that almost everything else that came out was oversalted.
Anita had to scrape away the greens from her dish of farm egg with robuchon potatoes and red wine Ubuntu spinach. Too salty.
I've heard a rumor/myth that chefs might be inclined to oversalt food if the temperature in the kitchen is too hot. Sweat out your own natural juices, and you just might find yourself craving salt. Hence, the food you're cooking doesn't taste salty enough, and you wreck it.
I don't know if that's true.
One of us at the table speculated that the kitchen is handicapped by having to serve only non-meat food, and may be jacking up the seasoning in order to come across as butch enough. Could be.
Anyway, in a nutshell, here's my opinion of Ubuntu. 1) Not enough customers in this good-looking restaurant on a sunny Sunday afternoon. 2) Beautiful presentations (and I haven't even told you about the other stuff we ate; the desserts were gorgeous). 3) Oversalted.
I just want to say that this is a restaurant receiving national acclaim. I will probably go back there, myself. But it's skidding off its tracks and somebody needs to say something.
a grain of salt


Jennywenny said...

That happened to me when I enjoyed a meal at Sens in SF. Everything seemed very salty, except the wonderful dessert.

How sad. I always think its very sad as you could always add more at the table but never remove it.

It had never crossed my mind that the cooks might be all hot and sweaty and responding to their conditions. I definitely crave salt after my gigantic saturday bike rides...

dancingmorganmouse said...

Too much salt, blerg.
But can I say, perfect use of "prior" there, just right! Your professionalism shines through.
(A pet peeve being use of "prior to" instead of "before".) :)

sfmike said...

It was a good review, encouraging and with a simple instruction. Have designer salt in mills on the table if you want to gussy up the presentation, but don't overdo it before the dish gets to the table, and this is coming from somebody who adores salt.

kudzu said...

Well, a recent salty experience I had was certainly not because it was in a vegetarian restarant and I was shocked. At first I thought it might be just the starter but then each course save dessert was way off. It was a shame since I liked the chef's offerings so much....I agree that a less heavy hand in the kitchen and the choice of seasonings on the table is the way to go, no matter how pure or haute the restaurant. Everyone's palate is different and this way nobody loses.

Sorry to hear that Ubuntu wasn't full of happy diners. Am hearing that more and more these days and fear it's the economy more than the appeal of an individual place. Many city venues are not even serving lunch now.

Jack at Fork & Bottle said...

We were there last night. We found the food oversalty - but also, over-sauced. Great tasting food.

Anita said...

So glad you got a good shot of your pearl pasta -- that was the one photo I took there that didn't come out well. (Oh, that gorgeous light... I want to take ALL of my pictures there!)

Thank you guys for inviting us. The food was yummy, but we couldn't get past the over-salted-ness, either... and we both LOVE salt. I felt puffy the entire next day, and my mouth is still feeling funny.

Joanne said...

Good to know that it wasn't just us. The potatoes were so saline laced I ordered another glass of water to wash it down. I can't imagine anyone ever using the seasalt grinder on the table! I felt that each course rampled up the sodium content to the pinnacle potatoes.

Sam said...

If I go to Ubuntu again, I am going to just eat dessert. Sorted.
When a restaurant is so universally lauded [hyped?] it's been set up almost for disappointment, or at the least greater criticism. I was expecting the world, but only got an emperor wearing no clothes.

cookiecrumb said...

Jennywenny: I know. You can't unsalt. Anita said her mouth felt puckered. Shame.

Morgan: Yeah, blerg. But I am much more flattered by your linguistic, um, flattery. Thanks. I used to make the "prior to" mistake until I got editors. Editors rock.

Mike: I understand adoring salt. This was simply a mistake, though. Let the diners do the finishing salting.

Kudzu: Ubuntu is such a good "almost" place, I still want to give it credit. But this kind of mistake is nearly unforgiveable. Sad.

Jack -- and Joanne! : Well, there's a near-minyan for you on the salt... and on still liking the place. Should I message the restaurant? Seems a bit overbearing on my part, and yet, we all agree the food is oversalted! Yikes.

Anita: Let's go there again just to take pictures. Damn. Good light, and beautiful presentations.
SO super to have a meal with you two. Again, soon, chez moi.

Sam: You are hinting at my discomfiture. The place is obviously fabulous, and yet they're obviously screwing up. I think both truths are simultaneously possible. (I deliberately ate less of my main meal so I'd have an appetite for dessert.)

Bri said...

Cookie, how ironic that Marc and I are fasting from salt, and met you right before you had a way-too-salty meal. We had a good chuckle at your expense, but I totally understand. Too salty, very quickly becomes inedible, even when all the other flavors are wonderful. Interesting theory on why chefs tend to oversalt. I had heard that they do, but not why. Glad you guys enjoyed yourselves, even if you left more buoyant than you arrived.

Catherine said...

Salt - it really is a big issue. I like salty. But it's always best to err on the side of not salty enough.

I want to try Ubuntu. I agree with Sam, tho, the marketing hype is a set-up.

Cocktail Jen said...

Found your blog while searching for local food stuff.

The chefs at Ubuntu came from Manresa, which may explain the salty. David Kinch is also a lover of salt, and often uses it as a texture as well as a flavor. Also, salty seems to be a trend lately.

I am also jealous you've gotten to try Ubuntu desserts. Deanie was the pastry chef at Manresa, and we almost cried when we heard she was leaving.

cookiecrumb said...

Bri: "more buoyant" !!!
Very good joke.
Nice to meet you both. Can't wait to hear how you'll react to salt once your fast ends.

Catherine: You should definitely go. It's lovely. And I think the oversalting might have been an accident. But I'm not sure.

Cocktail Jen: Yep, I knew the provenance of the chefs there, and I know about David's love of salty. Salty tastes good. Oversalty tastes bad.
Fortunately, on my first visit to Ubuntu, we didn't experience too much salt.
BTW, I do agree with you that salty is a trend. Are you following the butter battles?
For the record, Deanie's desserts in Napa are drop-dead gorgeous. Sorry we swiped her!! ;)

elarael said...

"Salty seems to be a trend..." That's funny, so is using artisan sea salts, which are much saltier than regular salt and require a lighter hand. Chefs should know this, but I can see how it would be easy to forget this in a commercial setting. But then, not if your success depends upon it.

Anonymous said...

We dined there recently and I think the NaCl ratio has come down significantly. The pizza still sucks but the Cauliflower pot was very good.


cookiecrumb said...

Veggie: Thanks for the update. I do still want to return, and I'd like to think we just had an off day that time.