Living in Los Angeles is a dream if you’re interested in vegan food. Lots of plant-based options at local markets for whipping up a delicious meal at home as well as lots of plant-based options at local restaurants for a night off from cooking. While most of the press is for vegan burger joints, understandable as there are a plethora of them around town, there are some exciting new restaurants offering a more upscale environment for a leisurely sit-down meal. Lucky for us there are several new vegan restaurants, right in our own backyard, that fall into the latter category. And you don’t have to be vegan to enjoy them!
This week I’m going to share my dining experience at just opened Ubuntu, located on Melrose Avenue near Gardner Street.
Ubuntu, (pronounced Ooo-boon-too) is a plant-based African-inspired restaurant from Chef Shenarri “Greens” Freeman, a James Beard Award semifinalist for her Brooklyn, New York restaurant, Cadence. With Ubuntu, Chef Shenarri brings the spices of West African cooking to her Los Angeles menu, after traveling throughout Africa to experience the rich flavors of that continent’s cuisine.
Entering the restaurant you are transported to another place and time. Turquoise-painted metal ceiling tiles adorned with palm tree leaf paddle fans, richly colored drapes, and Afro/Caribbean music create an ambiance that’s awash in colors and sounds, unlike any other eatery in LA. A large curved bar sits to the right while small tables and booths wrap around in an L shape. We were seated in the window overlooking Melrose, our only connection to LaLa land. It wasn’t long before the sounds of the city seemed to fade away as we settled into the plush gold velvet armchairs. Our server, Karen, was warm and friendly in that perfect waiter kind of way. She answered our questions with detailed information as we perused the menu and then left us to pare down our choices while she got our drink order; a divine hibiscus version of Sangria for me, a local beer from Inglewood for hubby. Lots of interesting options on the drinks menu.
Of note, is that Ubuntu has a very unique food menu even in the world of plant-based cooking in that there are no plant-based, meat, egg, or dairy replacements. Everything is a combination of vegetables, fruits, and/or grains from scratch. Much of the menu relies on a variety of mushrooms as the basis for the small plates, designed to share. While the menu is limited, with only ten items to choose from, it was still difficult to decide. Hubby and I opted for five dishes to give us a sense of the flavors.
We started with the Jollof Arancini and Charred Okra. Wow! Two stellar dishes right out of the gate. The arancini were unlike any arancini I’d ever had. Light and fluffy from the preparation of the rice, they were seasoned with spices that made it similar in taste to falafel but so much better. With every bite, my palate was trying to discern the spice mixture. I couldn’t but I could eat those savory rice balls every day! The charred okra was al dente and crisp without any of the slimy texture we most associate with that vegetable. Swimming in a puddle of piquant vinaigrette they were addicting to the last slurp of dressing. Again, the spice combinations were new and unique to my taste buds.
As we were eating the first two dishes, the rest of the meal came out, as is par for the course with tapas-style eating. We simply made room on the table. Hubby’s favorite dish of the night was the Trumpet Mushrooms with Red Pepper Pesto, mostly for that pesto. He swooned over the sauce with every bite. Suya, grilled spiralized celery root on skewers with tzatziki, was a fun take on kebabs. The celery root was charred and crisp. So different than the usual mashed celery root. Personally, I would have liked the veggies charred as well. The last dish, Fonio Grits with Oyster Mushrooms, was the least successful for me. While the fonio (an ancient African grain) was dense and comforting, the mushrooms seemed haphazardly thrown on top in an okay but not standout tomato sauce.
We were too full for dessert so we sat enjoying the relaxed vacation-like vibe of Unbuntu, as I sipped my sangria. No one rushed us to leave. Quite lovely.
If you’re interested in trying a restaurant with flavors that will carry you to distant lands undiscovered, you need to try Ubuntu. Chef Shenarri, whom we met as we were leaving, is passionate about cooking and creating exciting flavors for her guests. She has invested much time and effort in bringing this unique take on African foods. Please support her and this wonderful neighborhood gem right in our own neighborhood.