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Egg sandwiches and strange vegetables
(article, Deborah Madison)
As the author of many vegetable-dense cookbooks, I am frequently taken to vegetarian restaurants when on book tour. What I’ve liked about these forays is that I invariably leave feeling well-nourished, and this is no small thing. It’s something I deeply value and appreciate.
But I can’t say that vegetarian restaurants are always my first choice. Sometimes I want to sample the iconic foods of a place, to go to a restaurant I’ve heard about or another that’s known for its particular atmosphere, like the Liberty Bar in San Antonio with its leaning walls and table covered with loaves and layer cakes. And I’m always ready to dine on any reasonably authentic food from Italy.
[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="A fried-egg sandwich — this one with a thick slice of country bacon and sautéed beet greens."]
There are many reasons to choose one restaurant over another. One reason is because it’s there, you’re hungry, and there’s nothing else in sight, which is how my husband and I ended up this summer in a little café in rural Oregon. We weren’t too charmed by a sign that announced “Hippies use back door,” but we were happy with the strong coffee and thrilled with the egg sandwiches.
I’m a huge fan of fried-egg sandwiches in all forms and guises, but these were among the best. The eggs weren't actually fried; instead, they were fluffy, as if they’d been steamed in an espresso maker, something that Zuni Café used to do long before it was famous and you could wander in for steamed eggs and toast.
At the Oregon café, we went for the simple renditions — two sandwiches, both with cheese, bacon on one, smoked chile on another. Both sets of eggs were captured between chewy slices of untoasted rosemary foccacia. They were so good that it was tempting to go for a second round.
An egg sandwich may be a pretty simple food, but when you get a really good one at a place and time you least expect it, it can be downright amazing.
After Oregon, we wound up in Napa Valley, where we dined at, yes, a vegetarian restaurant called Ubuntu. Rather, I should say, we dined at a vegetable restaurant, as Ubuntu's chef, Jeremy Fox, doesn’t see himself so much as a vegetarian chef but as a cooker of vegetables, a distinction I understand. I’d been hearing about Ubuntu and how it wasn’t your typical vegetarian restaurant, and I was curious.
The restaurant's home is a large and open space in downtown Napa. It shares space with a yoga studio; you can catch a shadowy glimpse of someone in a yogic pose should you glance up at the mezzanine. But in the restaurant proper, there’s a great long bar, a solid row of community tables, and a bevy of smaller ones for parties with reservations. It was full of locals, including a few we knew, and young people, and there was the good noise of lively conversation.
The line work was taking place not far from our table, the chef calmly expediting the flow of food from the kitchen. The atmosphere wasn’t hurried, and it wasn’t hushed. It was a good place to be.
I gazed at the menu. It didn’t seem to have any point of view about vegetarianism, but the 14 dish descriptions were peppered with words in caps to indicate what came from Ubuntu’s biodynamic garden: ALLIUMS. AMARANTH, CARROT GREENS, and TORPEDO TOPS.
Some dishes were vegan, and there was a generous offer to make others so, but then there was this great little pizza with Bellwether Farms ricotta and carta da musica (Sardinian bread) with truffled pecorino. The effect of this cheerful mix was liberating, allowing one to drop the mindsets that so often accompany the words “vegan” and “vegetarian” and instead be appropriately curious about foods probably never imagined before.
And there were plenty of those. One was a roasted Oxheart carrot (for two) that came with New Zealand spinach, little brioche croutons, and hazelnuts. The carrot was presented first in its raw and rooty splendor, a presentation that managed to be free of pretension. And what a carrot it was. I mean, how many people have seen an Oxheart carrot and know how really big it is? Not many, I’d wager.
Or take the cauliflower in a tiny cast-iron pot seasoned with a spice mixture called vadouvan, accompanied with a sort of couscous made of raw cauliflower and thin brioche toasts brushed with browned butter. It surprised me by being so luscious that I decided with the first bite that I’d order it the next time.
Food writer David Lebovitz recently visited Ubuntu and posted a mouth-watering photo essay on his blog.
Even the green salad, "Leaves and Things," was a wildly unpredictable tangle of greens and herbs that revealed layers of excitement. It was so remarkable that it reinforced my determination to grow not just better but great greens.
Reading the menu I brought I home, I try to imagine blackened melon with shiso, shiitake pickle, fig pulp, and almond — and nothing comes to mind. Same with a summer stew that includes okra marmalade and piquillo tears. These things just don’t read. For the most part, descriptions don’t give the diner much of a clue as to what to expect. Vadouvan, espelette, ficoide glaciale, trumpet chips — what do these words mean? One thing they mean is that you’d better have a sense of adventure!
Usually I have no patience for this kind of thing. I like to recognize a dish and its components, and when it comes to dinner, I don’t necessarily want to be amused by a chef’s inventions. A good egg sandwich makes me really happy. But there is something about Ubuntu that invites its diners to cast aside any doubts and limitations and take a chance on Jeremy Fox and his wild and crazy — but very well-thought-out — dishes, including the desserts. Made by his wife, Deanie Fox, they match the spirit and deliver all the flavor of the savory side of the menu.
Perhaps because the menu is meatless, we were already primed for something that was going to have to break a few rules, like having a carrot for your entrée. Whatever the reason, it felt good to be pushed onto this adventurous ride, and I’d do it again.
p(bio). Deborah Madison is the author of numerous award-winning cookbooks, including Local Flavors. She lives in New Mexico.