Monday, April 12, 2010

Lunch at Ubuntu with legendary cooking maven Deborah Madison, Part 1



I look like a perverse imp gazing over Deborah's shoulder there, but my actual emotions were one of pure happiness and ravenous hunger.  Let's talk about the happiness first and then move on to the hunger.

Meeting one of my heroes over lunch was a dream come true, and doing so at the one-star Ubuntu Restaurant in downtown Napa conspired to send my delight into something bordering ecstasy.

First of all, Deborah is a true class act.  It was pouring rain, and yet she slogged her way over from Green Gulch Farm in Marin County bearing a lovely wreath of fresh rosemary and lavender.  

Deborah was in town for only two nights to celebrate Greens Restaurant's thirtieth anniversary, the place where she was the first executive chef starting in 1979, the one who put that stellar vegetarian restaurant on the map.  She had also flown to the Bay Area to promote her glorious new book, Seasonal Fruit Desserts: From Orchard, Farm and Market, which she was going to talk about at famed bean maestro Steve Sando's hip and funky Rancho Gordo only a few blocks away in downtown Napa.  We agreed that a good lunch at Ubuntu would be a great way to bridge her Zen past and her cookbook-studded present.

Now back to the hunger.  One of the best things about having a meal with Deborah is that you get treated like a collateral star.  I've never been in an entourage, but my husband and I found ourselves on the receiving end of some pretty amazing service, even for the always attentive Ubuntu staff.  

Leeks posing as noodles posing as setting sun
While we made occasional stabs at looking at the menu, we spent most of our energies for a leisurely half hour discussing Greens, the Zen Center, Chinese philosophy, orchid cacti, vegetarianism vs. the desire to eat meat, and other matters of grave consequence.  Our waiter floated by with regularity of Sputnik, trying gracefully to catch our eye and take our order, but we were too busy talking until our stomachs started to growl.  

After picking out a wine and diving into some appetizers, we were told that the chef would like to send us out his favorites, and this was met with enthusiastic relief, since we couldn't figure out what on the menu would be best.  We nibbled our way through roasted nuts, olives marinated in a lovely carrot top pesto, and a delightful "chip and dip" concoction while sighing over glasses of an ambrosial Carmenere (Yorkville 2006) our waiter had recommended.


Chinese landscape on a plate
The waiter shimmered back to our table with individual bowls of "pandora LEEKS posing as noodles bathed in sweet pepper dashi; smoked garnet YAM, scarlet queen TURNIPS, soft egg, burnt nori."  (Everything that's grown on Ubuntu's farm is highlighted with capitals on the menu.)  But that really doesn't describe the experience.  The long baby leeks and the layers of flavors and textures were alarmingly sensual, the smoky scents tussling with a gentle bite of vinegar.  Half a poached egg beaming out from the dark hues that cradled it like a confetti nest.


Stained glass radishes
Following this was "warm PURPLE HAZE and cool WHITE SATIN CARROT salad; red CARDINAL SPINACH, local raspberries crushed in herb vinaigrette, Marcona almonds."  And yet this long list of ingredients doesn't even come close to telling you that this was actually a Chinese landscape of soaring reddish carrot peaks on which the tiniest baby sprouts clung like minuscule trees, the clouds formed by shavings of pale ivory carrots, and dancing cliffs suggested by little spinach leaves.  We spent at least ten minutes devouring this dreamy landscape with our eyes and picking out dainty details in the picture before allowing our appetites to destroy it in an ecstatic carnage worthy of Godzilla.


And then what was purported to be a plate of gnocchi landed on our table with a whisper.  I've had gnocchi before.  This was more like a stained glass window than a plate of gnocchi.  In fact, it seemed to be a salad.  Just look at the description: "a simple plate of horseradish gnocchi and assorted ROOTS; midnight moon, HONG VIT, smooth FAVA LEAF."  If you're anything like me, there is more than one ingredient here that will make you go, huh?  But the raw ingredients actually heightened the ravishing texture of the gnocchi, and the ingenious addition of horseradish to the soft gnocchi pillows turned what could have been a bland -- albeit gorgeous -- salad into a dish that had me trying to find a way to graciously wrangle the last few pieces off of the serving plate.
Beets disguised as dessert disguised as entree


At about the same time, our server placed an edifice on our plate that looked like dessert.  We were puzzled.  What is it, we asked.  "Marinated ruby queen BEETS with whipped goat's milk; torn brioche, pistachio pudding, honeyed pamplemousse."  Deborah stage whispered with a grin, "Pamplemousse is French for grapefruit."  

We happily regarded the now familiar chunks of citrus perched on what looked like a colorful but oddly ancient Roman bath, with blocks of vibrantly-colored beets, grapefruit, and egg bread topped with snow and moss (i.e., milk and baby sprouts) surrounding a pool of pale jade (a gentle pistachio cream).  But it wasn't sweet, not in the least.  That's what floored me.  It toyed with acting like a dessert, but it was all part of the culinary game we found ourselves happily playing with the chef.  It served as a gentle counterpoint to the pungency of the horseradish, and we downed more wine, nibbled the lavender-laced Marcona almonds that still lingered from our appetizers, and said we could eat no more.

(Continued in the next post...)

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