The silverware doesn’t match but it’s old and real. Diners sit on hard wooden benches and unforgiving wood and metal chairs at tiny marble tables pushed too close together. The hard surfaces in this garage-like space fabricated from industrial materials — cement, aluminum, steel — magnify sound. The Universal Cafe is not the most comfortable place to dine.
But over the years, thirteen to be exact, the physical space has acquired a patina, and when I walked in after a long absence, I noticed it. The votive-lit room, with a kitchen smack in the middle behind a counter, and a gigantic wild arrangement of flowers and branches, feels softer, less edgy.
Though ownership of Universal changed a couple of years ago — three of its original employees bought it, including former sous chef Leslie Carr-Alvos — the place has only gotten better. The small menu still focuses on local, seasonal, sustainably raised ingredients, and the kitchen still cooks with insouciance and a bent toward comfort. You never leave Universal hungry.
Over two visits, I ate my way through the whole menu. Universal’s salads are the highest expression of California culinary culture. I don’t just enjoy, but believe in, salads like little gems (a cross between romaine and butter lettuce that yields the perfect crisp/tender three-inch leaf) with avocado, beets and dill-buttermilk dressing ($8). Universal’s perfectly balanced spin on this classic characterizes all their salads — like Jonathan apple, celery heart, endive and toasted walnuts in a juicy slaw, robed with herbed creme fraiche ($8).
Though I will never be weaned away from salad here, I can attest that soups are voluptuous and interesting, like a deep, velvety puree of celery root soup with a blue cheese crouton float ($6). And I will share a starter, along with salad, like a magnificent toast piled high with sauteed chanterelles finished with sherry, cream and garlic ($9).
Main courses are seductive, like a bowl of tender, fresh linguine and lamb bolognese rich with proscuitto, cream and aromatic spices ($15). A skate wing ($19) has not one but two sauces — brown butter and piquant green herb sauce.
But the iconic Universal main course features long braised meats, like brisket cooked in red wine with pearl onions ($19), whose sauce was a little over-reduced one night; or a big hunk of Willis farm pork shoulder with sweet gypsy peppers, and herbed spaetzle ($19), whose juices were perfect if intense.
Many order a couple of starters and follow with a cheese or three, always imaginatively presented. A tangy goats’ milk cheese was destined to go with honey-drizzled walnut toast and dried figs ($4).
I finish with a refreshing Concord grape granita spooned over vanilla gelato ($6), a grape creamsicle on your tongue.
The short wine list stays true to the menu in both price and flavor, with many perky wines by the glass and an international array of bottles.
Service has been honed such that an efficient, unflappably pleasant cadre of waiters and bussers keep the tables turning without guests even noticing it. And the sunny, hidden location, on a quiet, tree-lined block with wide sidewalks that allow for enjoyable outdoor dining, weather permitting, always delights me. I never fail to fantasize what it would be like to live across the street from Universal. When that happens, I know I’ve found a very good cafe.
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