Grilled Steak with Frites, Linguine with Duck Confit and Wilted Spinach, Chocolate Tort with Caramel and Vanilla Ice Cream
Occupation: Information Technology
Location: San Francisco
Favorite Restaurant: Universal Café
Reviewed Universal Café: Thursday, October 13, 2005
Okay! This was the last of the three places I went to and this was my pick. I've been to Universal Café numerous times, but never at 6pm and by myself. I thought I would change it up a bit. Here's the blow-by-blow.
I walked in and the place was empty except for a cute family: mom, dad, and two cute towheads. It reminded me of how much I love living in the Mission. I grew up in the suburbs and was never lucky enough to enjoy the killer food scene we have here in the city. Anyway, I sat down at the counter. It's small -- four or five barstools. I checked out the menu, it's always new. I decided to order the roasted chix. Although the pork chop sounded good, I remember how much I loved the chix last time I was here and I just wanted to do something easy. I order a beer first and the heirloom tomato salad. It's tomato season...right? Well, the tomato salad was great. Big slices of juicy red, green, and yellow tomatoes and a few cherry toms as well. They didn't use basil, but instead used some kind of bitter green. Not sure what it was, but I loved it. It went well with balsamic vinegar and the sweetness of the tomatoes. I ate it all and used some of the bread to sop up the mix of liquid left behind.
The person serving me was getting things ready for the night, folding napkins and moving tables, but keeping an eye on me. Man, why do I keep thinking about Angela? Keep focused. That's another story. The next course: roasted chix with polenta, chanterelle mushrooms, and spinach. I watched the guys in the small kitchen prepare it. Roasted chix, leg, thigh, and breast perched on top of polenta with a rich earthy sauce with yummy chanterelle mushrooms. I didn't eat it all 'cuz the portion was pretty big, and I wanted to save room for dessert. I did, however, take it home with me and had a midnight snack. It even tasted great cold and standing in front of the fridge. The cooks/chef are real people. No exhibition chefs here, just real people. Kinda rough looking, but complete professionals. It was cool watching them delicately plate the food. Dessert was a chocolate tort with vanilla ice cream -- very rich and smooth and warm. I made sure to get some of the ice cream with each bite. No leftovers on that one. By the time I was done with dessert, it started to get a little busy. I could feel the vibe of the place starting to get going. Servers were coming on and the place started to move. I felt the pulse of the place start to come alive. It was then that I noticed the music -- a thick lounge-y beat. Perfect complement to the atmosphere. Didn't want to leave but had to get going. Meeting some friend for some drinks at Medjool.
Favorite Restaurant: Burma SuperStar
Reviewed Universal Café: Sunday, October 16, 2005
To start off, I think I chose a good day to dine because there were quite a few parking spaces. I've been to this area before and I've had to circle for a long time just looking for parking! So that was definitely a plus.
From the outside, Universal Café looks like a nice urban, trendy, neighborhood restaurant. And that pretty much describes the atmosphere as well. With tables outside and in, you can dine in the fresh air or indoors next to the open kitchen. A chalkboard informs you of the day's specials as well as tells you about the wines, which you can enjoy at the small bar inside while you wait for your table.
My reservations for four people had us sitting inside. They sat us even though my whole party hadn't arrived yet, which is a nicety that not all places will do nowadays. It was a table near the open kitchen, so every now and then you would see flames exploding from behind you. Kind of neat. The service was good, but they don't go out of their way for you. But I believe there was only one server for all of the tables (about ten of them), so it's understandable. When I asked the server what he recommended, his reply was that he "didn't want to steer anyone away from anything." I found that a little weird.
With four people we were able to try most of the appetizers on the menu:
A BLT with sweetbreads: This was a very good dish, and a good introduction to sweetbreads for the first-timer. It was served on lightly toasted French bread with crisp bacon, lettuce, large heirloom tomatoes, and a large chunk of fried sweetbread.
An arugula and pecorino salad with figs: Very refreshing salad. The ripe figs really made this dish!
Grilled white shrimp: I was disappointed by the accompanying salad/greens (which was like a bad coleslaw), but the large grilled shrimp were cooked perfectly and had great flavor.
Leek and olive flatbread: This was unexpectedly large. It was basically a really thin cheese pizza. A little plain, but good.
The wine selection wasn't very extensive, but what they had (by the glass and bottle) was impressive and well-priced. The Fife Zinfandel I ordered went well with my main course, which was the grilled steak. Perfectly medium-rare and served with a side of frites. The green onion garnish with the steak was wonderful, but the frites were a bit salty. I thought it may have just been my order, but my friend who also ordered the steak had fries that suffered from the same ailment.
One of my fellow diners ordered the grilled halibut. The fish itself was fresh, however the creamy white sauce it was served with had no real flavor and the garnish of potatoes and vinegary beets overpowered the fish.
For dessert we split two items:
A bittersweet chocolate cake with a scoop of caramel gelato: YUM. This was great! Moist, bittersweet, chocolate cake served warm with a large scoop of caramel gelato, drizzled with chocolate and caramel. Excellent.
Apple and huckleberry crisp with a scoop of vanilla gelato: ALMOST AS GOOD! Perfectly baked!
Overall the experience was good. Good atmosphere, nice décor, and decent service. Although I pointed out a few things that were negative, most of the food was very good and I was pleasantly surprised by the dessert! I think this is a good local restaurant for a laidback meal that you can take your time enjoying while you talk and catch up with your friends. And although it's small, the fact that they take reservations and have a small bar with good wine may make up for any wait that you may have to endure on a more crowded day.
Occupation: Flight Attendant
Location: San Francisco
Favorite Restaurant: Paul K
Reviewed Universal Café: Wednesday, October 12, 2005
Universal Café was a treat of a restaurant for a new find, although it has been there for thirteen years. I went there with no expectations, and was thoroughly delighted with the whole experience. Friendly, warm service was evident from my arrival, and it immediately exuded a neighborhood feeling. I had the impression that most patrons are regulars, and seem familiar with the food and space. My biggest fear when I see all hard surfaces is that table conversation will be difficult, but this was not the case since it was not full when we were there. The lighting was excellent and the gorgeous floral arrangement on the counter of the open kitchen added beautiful color to an otherwise monotone look. Noticed the clever placement of the silver knife and fork crossed on the white cloth napkin -- artistic touch. We were welcomed and served by a very attentive person who was knowledgeable and friendly.
Overall, the food was very good. I would go back in an instant for the chicken entree. It was done to perfection, and even discovered from the owner afterwards how it is finished in a seven-hundred-degree oven to crisp the skin. The combination of the creamy polenta and wilted spinach made it a "must have again." My dishes of fennel sausage and duck confit linguine could have used another level of flavor, but generally were very good. Under my appetizer sausage was the caramelized syrup from the grilled figs and apples that made the dish wonderful. The wine was not spectacular, but went well with my meal. The dessert was difficult to eat at first since the granita was packed and piled high in the stemmed dish causing it to spill over when first eaten, but whem combined with the gelato on the bottom, it made for a sweet treat. Would like to have it served a different way.
A visit to the bathroom at the end was pleasant, as it was very roomy and clean. I would go back to this restaurant over and over and not hesitate to take friends with me. Practically every other table started with a pile of garlic fries that I vow to have when I return. A lengthy conversation with the owner, Armando, after dinner, gave us a history of the restaurant and a feeling that they are happy to be providing such good food to the people in the area. Dedication and pride makes for confidence and a good dining experience.