Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Universal Cafe: Universal Appeal

2814 19th Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
Chef Leslie Carr Avalos
Lunch Fridays only
Brunch on weekends
Closed Monday

Tried: January 2006

Universal Cafe is one of those marvelous neighborhood dining spots that are as characteristically San Francisco as Coit Tower or the Golden Gate Bridge. The food is unassuming yet casually sophisticated, and comforting yet distinctive. The atmosphere of the small, narrow dining room with open kitchen imparts a similar careless chic, like an artist's loft, with a long mirror on one end of the room creating the illusion of a larger space and an inexpensive yet thoughtful selection of wines by the glass scrawled on the chalkboard by the entrance.

All of the dishes are simply prepared using quality ingredients, and the result is a highly satisfying meal, with a minimal hit to the credit card. The freshly pureed pumpkin and spices shine in the generous bowl of Cinderella pumpkin soup, which has just the right amount of sweet creaminess without veering into excess. The chicken liver crostini appetizer is likewise the product of great ingredients that are well prepared. At Universal Cafe's prices, this may qualify as poor man's foie gras but tasted good enough to be the rich man's version. The crostini were grilled to perfection, and the chicken liver had been mixed with just enough chopped hard-boiled egg and spices to create a luxurious pate. The cornichons and pickled carrots and onions accompanying the crostini were the exact right accompaniment to the dish.

The Niman Ranch flatiron steak and frites with red wine sauce was hearty and satisfying. Although the fries were slightly overdone, the steak was prepared perfectly medium rare and was so tender and flavorful that it almost did not need the red wine sauce. The milk-braised pork shoulder ciabatta sandwich with spicy rapini, however, wins as the best entree. The soft and well-seasoned pulled pork and the pungent rapini combined with the fresh and chewy ciabatta bread was a taste and texture delight. The short but well-priced list of wines by the glass (5 reds and 5 whites) also allowed us to try different varietals from Italy, Argentina, and Spain with our meal.

While Universal Cafe is not a "destination" restaurant, it is one of those places where anyone would be content to enjoy an inexpensive and gratifying meal and part of what makes San Francisco a great place to live and eat.


Maddy said...

Cinderella soup! I love it!

Anonymous said...

I wish I could take credit for that but that's the name of the soup on the menu. But I suppose it makes sense-- take a large unattractive vegetable and transform it into a gorgeous soup!

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