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Dinner in the Diner 

Universal Cafe

Wednesday, Sep 1 1999
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The Universal Cafe is even further removed in style and substance from the original model; so far, in fact, it's of an entirely new genre altogether. It began life as an inexpensive yet upscale pizza-focaccia joint, so its roots are more of the Mediterranean variety, but the current menu has a classic American slant. Located in a less-traveled corner of the Mission otherwise occupied by KQED, ZDTV, and other media trendsetters, the Universal has that sleek-spare chrome-marble look common to every venue that's sprouted among industrial artist types since the Carter administration. This one-time South of the Slot warehouse is now a stylish confluence of cement, plywood, aluminum, and exposed piping, with huge southern-exposure plate glass windows adding a light, airy feel to all the techno trappings. Tiny marble-topped tables and minimalist counter seating increase the venue's élan: The joint's packed with chic SOMA bodies on a fairly regular basis.

Like any good California eatery, the Universal's menu (which changes from day to day) is on excellent speaking terms with the four seasons and their particular culinary offerings. When we visited last week, for instance, chanterelles, figs, plums, corn, eggplant, blackberries, and other produce that makes the month of August so delicious were prominent dinner ingredients. They're assembled into dishes that betray hints of southern Europe and greater Asia but are firmly anchored in the cuisines of farm-fresh Midwestern America. Take our primary salad, a bushel of mixed greens in every verdant shade, lightly and balsamically dressed into a cushion for the sweetest, most delicate chicken livers I've ever tasted ($7.50). In my experience chicken livers are invariably overcooked into a dense sort of oblivion, but these, perfectly grilled and glazed with the salad's same balsamic dressing, melted in the mouth. Another huge pile of organic greens was deliciously complemented by rich, pungent chunks of Gorgonzola and crunchy candied walnuts ($8.50).

The Universal's eclectic-pizzeria roots came to the fore with a wonderful appetizer flatbread, crisply grilled and topped with the contrasting flavors of salty prosciutto, bitter radicchio, sweet fig meat, and blandly supple mozzarella, the whole scattered with more of those bracing mixed greens ($9.25). But our favorite starter was a bowl of Middle Eastern sensuality: a soup of puréed garbanzos, cumin, and lemon as rich, silky, and fragrant as an Arabian night ($6).

Many a restaurant serves terrific starters and fabulous desserts and stumbles in between, as if the overwhelming pressure to create a good first impression had drained the kitchen of its creative energy. The Universal is no exception. The entrees weren't bad by any means; they simply lacked the pizazz the starters had led us to expect. We skipped the risotto with chanterelles, corn, and bacon ($13.50), the roast chicken with morels and English peas ($15), and the seared filet mignon with Gorgonzola mashed potatoes ($21) for more exotic pastures and came up wanting. The biryani curry ($12.50), for instance, while moderately tasty, was in the end a big platter of sweet potatoes, cauliflower, and zucchini dressed with an only mildly zesty sauce. The egg fettuccine ($14.50) was equally perfunctory despite the freshness of the pasta, a plethora of Maine crab meat, and the presence of roasted peppers and artichokes.

The duck breast ($17) was nicely seared and tender, but its lack of smoky flavor demanded something livelier than the red wine dressing that sauced it and the bland polenta cake that accompanied it. And the grilled pork loin ($16.25) was rich and tasty, especially in conjunction with the dozen or so soft, smoothly textured, slowly roasted garlic cloves and fried potato rounds that shared its platter, but an adjoining mountain of red and gold string beans was a bland nuisance.

Par for the course, the desserts ($6 each) got things back on the culinary track. The chocolate pudding cake was nice and dense, but what really made it was its absolutely nectareous accompaniment of caramel ice cream. The blueberry-peach cobbler was another standout, as a healthy dollop of whipped cream melted into fragrantly cooked fruit and a rich, cookielike pastry. The shortcake, strewn with blackberries and blueberries plucked, I would swear, by gingham-skirted schoolgirls earlier that evening, tasted like the sort of biscuit you can only get in a rural farmhouse deep in the heartland; it was my favorite individual taste of the evening. A perfectly simple platter of fresh ricotta and sweet, ruby-red strawberries made for an ideal meal-closer.

The Universal's brief, interesting wine list (which includes a Kistler chardonnay at $60, a Remelluri rioja at $36, and a Vieux Telegraph chatneneuf du pape at $45) is supplemented with a good selection of aperitifs and Pilsner Urquel on tap as well as coffee brewed from the establishment's own beans. Such artificial stimulants are, however, completely unnecessary in this edgy enclave, where industrial chic meets one of America's grandest culinary traditions.

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Matthew Stafford

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