Northern California

ubuntuamuse.jpgNo man is an island; we are all interconnected by our humanity. That is the philosophy of Ubuntu, a belief rooted in Zulu culture that emphasizes people's allegiances, relationships, community, sharing, and generosity. Ubuntu, then, is an apt name for the Michelin-starred restaurant, which aims to connect patrons with the bounty of the earth through produce that is sustainably and biodynamically grown. Located in downtown Napa, Ubuntu is a restaurant, yoga studio, and store, all in one building. The dining space is quite modern and rustic with exposed brick, wood, steel, and conduit and features a wine bar with an expansive wine list and an open kitchen. I had the absolute pleasure of dining at Ubuntu on my day trip to Napa two weekends ago. What sets the restaurant apart is its all vegetable menu. All dishes are vegetarian or nearly vegan, but what some might consider a culinary limitation becomes limitless in the hands of executive chef Aaron London.

The saying is true that you eat with your eyes first. At Ubuntu everything looks like it is created by an artist. As you can see by the photographs, chef London presents food in a unique and very eye-catching way. The stunning dishes don't just stop at looks, they taste wonderful too. Many dishes, such as the salads, are just combinations of different vegetables prepared simply, but with amazing flavors that speak beyond their simplicity. It definitely has something to with the fact that all the produce used by the restaurant is sourced locally, much of it from the restaurant's own garden, about 10 miles outside downtown Napa. The care that goes into the garden and the cooking definitely shows on the plates.

 

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41-french-laundry.jpg I went to the French Laundry restaurant located in the Napa region (specifically, Yountville, California) in 1996 and haven’t been able to get a reservation since – at least until a week ago.  Of course, that’s what happens when a chef later becomes tops in the U.S. and his restaurant is voted tops in the world.  But with one day’s notice, I was told my group of four were in. Pack your dinner jacket we were told.  They should’ve added cash out your 401k and clean out your savings account with a scrub brush.  The price to party was now $240 per person for a nine course tasting menu (two options: Chef’s and Vegetarian) not including wine – a decent bottle (not a case) of which will cost you $200 more.  

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tacos01.jpgFor several years now I'd been hearing about the taco trucks of Fruitvale, a section of Oakland known for having a large Latino population. After reading endless reports on Yelp, Chowhound and an article in the East Bay Express by John Birdsall, I was ready to hit the road, or rather, International Boulevard, where there's a high concentration of taco trucks. I didn't spend a month investigating like Birdsall did (thanks John!) but I did put together a hit list, based on recommendations and testimonials. A word about pricing, you'll spend more on bridge toll than you will at most spots along the corridor. Tacos ranged in price from $1 to $1.25 and the agua fresca I ordered was $1.

First stop was the Sinaloa complex, located in a parking lot at 2138 International Blvd. You can't miss this stop and frankly, it's one of the best. Here there are two trucks to visit--one has the standard kinds of tacos, while the other is devoted to seafood. The fish taco was good, but the shrimp tostada was outstanding. A crisp tortilla was topped not just with sweet, plump and juicy shrimp, but also chunks of cucumber, tomato, onion, slivers of avocado and fresh cilantro. Not to be missed!

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barndiva frontI recently performed Celebrity Autobiography at the Wells Fargo Center For The Arts in Santa Rosa. I didn’t know where Santa Rosa was nor did I realize that the Welles Fargo Center was a hip destination and the setting for many legendary comedy albums. George Carlin and Bill Cosby to name a few.

My plane ticket had me spending the entire next day there with nothing to do because there were no direct flights back to Los Angeles. I asked the driver who picked me up what the local places featured. For Christsakes I was in wine country!! And that was the thing to do; tour wineries.  The problem was, I don’t drink…any kind of alcohol. I know, I’m a sissy.  

So, I decided that I’d rent movies that were still in the theatre, (The Apparition, Jewish Ghosts) have room service, read my Stephen Kind novel and sleep late!! Heaven in my book.  But there’s only so long you can do that.  I got antsy and looked at the hotel ‘things to do’ book to see if there were any restaurants to check out.

There was a map showing what areas were close to the hotel and it looked like the closest  place for food and shopping was in Healdsburg. I’m always scared to venture out in a town I don’t know because I can and have gotten lost in a parking lot, but I planned my route there and back as if it were for a five year old. Success!

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dry-creek-kitchen-healdsburg-ca-95448-signIt was my 33rd birthday and I decided to treat myself to a nice trip to Sonoma Valley. Some call it the “Jesus year”, but I like to call it another excuse to play in wine country! With all the choices for fine dining restaurants, I had quite a task to narrow it down to one. We are talking about one of the culinary meccas, people! While I knew I’d stay multiple days in Sonoma Valley, most nights were allocated to be spent with good friends, so that left me with one night all to myself. At the end of the day, I was extremely happy with my choice: Charlie Palmer’s Dry Creek Kitchen.

Charlie Palmer has made a name for himself since the 1980s with his first restaurant Aureole in New York. Ever since then, he’s won award after award, including two restaurants with Michelin stars (Aureole: New York, Las Vegas). Included in the restaurant bank of awards is Dry Creek Kitchen in Healdsburg, California, which he opened in 2001, located in the northern Sonoma Valley. From the coat check to the final escort to my taxi, I was incredibly pleased with my dining experience.

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