The New Napa: Bring Your Appetite
All articles by columnist
Columnist: Louisa Hufstader
May, 2008 Issue
First-time restaurateur Sandy Lawrence didn’t set out to put downtown Napa on the culinary map. But thanks to a recent New York Times series, in which food critic Frank Bruni tasted his way through some of the country’s best new eating places, her Main Street restaurant, Ubuntu, has become both a nationally known dining attraction and a local source of civic pride.
In March, Bruni named Ubuntu number two on his top-10 list of new restaurants outside New York City and admitted he’d had a hard time choosing number one. Boston’s O Ya won out in the end, but Bruni said he was “blissed-out” at both establishments: “I loved them both,” he wrote. “Midway through dinner at each, I realized I couldn’t stop smiling because I was so excited to be introduced to the restaurant and so eager to introduce it to others. Neither is quite like any other restaurant I know.”
Bruni delighted in Ubuntu’s lavender almonds, truffled polenta and avocado pudding, and ladled praise on the work of husband-and-wife chefs Jeremy and Deanie Fox: “inspired, exhilarating cooking of a caliber I couldn’t have imagined.”
Napa city officials were so thrilled about the Times distinction that they posted it on the municipal website (www.cityofnapa.org). Contrasting nicely with announcements about a contained chemical spill and the annual hydrant-flushing program, the item also quoted chef Ken Frank of La Toque in Yountville, who’s opening an operation at the still-under-construction Westin Verasa condo-hotel just across the river from Ubuntu, as saying the culinary “center of gravity has shifted” to the city limits. (Indeed: In Bruni’s survey of new eateries, alpha chef Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc in Yountville didn’t even make the cut.)
All this excitement about Ubuntu would have been hard to imagine just a year or so ago, when Lawrence and some friends were simply looking for vegetarian cuisine in Napa. Not finding any, Lawrence, who’d been planning a trip to Africa, decided instead to open a place of her own. “I was walking by the space and saw the ‘For Rent’ sign,” she says. The Main Street property, next door to the popular Vietnamese-American eatery Annalien, was perfect, with plenty of room for a restaurant and space to spare for Lawrence’s yoga practice.
That’s right: Ubuntu is a vegetarian restaurant and a yoga studio with classes that run from early morning ’til late at night. Opened in fall 2007, the restaurant quickly won a local following, which widened after a rave review from the San Francisco Chronicle’s heavyweight dining critic, Michael Bauer.
The word “ubuntu” means “humanity toward others” in Zulu; the restaurant website, www.ubuntunapa.com, offers a link to a YouTube video of former South African President Nelson Mandela explaining the concept. (You’ll also find a recent menu and yoga schedule, plus lots more information about the food and chefs.) The restaurant phone number is (707) 251-5656 and the address is 1140 Main Street, Napa. I probably don’t need to add this, but nonetheless: Reservations are advised.
With Annalien, Ubuntu and Cole’s Chop House (the meaty yang to Ubuntu’s vegetarian yin) lining Main Street’s east side, ZuZu to the southwest and, anchoring the street’s southern end, Greg Cole’s Celadon, the restaurant at the Napa General Store and Bettina Rouas’s elegantly French Angèle—Napa’s Restaurant Row has never been more appealing. There’s something for most palates, with even more good food on nearby Pearl, Clinton and the numbered downtown streets. There’s even a choice of coffee establishments and sweet shops.
But there’s one much-loved restaurant missing from the downtown line-up: Chef/owner Pilar Sanchez writes that, because the 19th-century Main Street building that houses her 49-seat dining room is being upgraded for seismic safety, restaurant Pilar will be closed indefinitely.
“We plan to do other work during this process, like replacing some very old plumbing and stripping the walls down to the beautiful red brick,” Sanchez writes on the Pilar website. “When the restaurant reopens, it will not only be safer but more beautiful.”
There’s no firm date for reopening, but when Pilar does welcome diners back—even if it’s later this year—it will be in a very different downtown. Even now, if you cross the Napa River heading west on First or Third street, you can see the dramatic changes to the city’s riverfront that have resulted from the long, slow and often noisy process of flood control work over the past near-decade.
A walkway along the river runs past a terraced Veterans Memorial Park, which has lost its bandstand but gained a certain dignity with new, amphitheater-like landscaping. Cranes rear high above old roofs as new buildings rise, including a mixed-use development on the riverside south of Third Street. (I’m guessing most apartment windows will be aimed anywhere but west, where their closest Main Street neighbor is the county lockup.)
And across the river, on what was once farmland, visitors and locals alike are beginning to discover the emerging Oxbow District, anchored by COPIA and the fledgling Oxbow Public Market on First Street.
More and more tourists are finding their way to the Oxbow market, where the pace of business has freshened with the spring. Live Sunday afternoon music on the back deck began in the spring and several new businesses should be operating by the end of May, including a coffee roaster, a sustainable seafood store and several farm stands on the building’s east side. There are, at latest count, five informal eating places, an organic ice-cream stand and a chocolate shop, plus a compendious spice market, a wine and cheese shop, two artisanal meat markets and a bakery.
And to think: This is all in the city that a famous travel guide once advised Napa Valley visitors to skip entirely.
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