Universal Cafe

I’m becoming a colossal bore.

Seriously. If I’m boring myself this much, I can’t imagine what you must be thinking.

I’m talking about me writing the same old story, again and again. It goes a little something like this: Nice restaurant, well-prepared food, nothing but Risotto for the vegetarian entrée.

At first, it was funny. (Although, admittedly, not that funny.) But now, it’s just getting to be a downer.

Here’s another one to toss onto the pile: Universal Café. It’s everything you could ever want in a neighborhood restaurant. Small and intimate with an open kitchen, their space tells a story of craftsmanship and care. The menu changes every other day: It’s short and sweet, with a clear point of view.

My Mixed Lettuce Salad was perfectly dressed in Red Wine Vinaigrette. There was nothing fussy about it, and that’s the way I like it. Our table shared the Grilled Flatbread with Escarole, Juliet Heirloom Tomatoes, and Fresh Mozzarella. It was lovely. Uber-thin and crisp. And my Risotto (grrrrrr) with Roasted Butternut Squash, Leeks, White Truffle Oil and Thyme carried an uncommon depth of flavor. Subtly sweet, but never cloying.


I’m sure there are some folks out there who wish I’d simply get over it and take the yummy meal at face value. (Believe me. I understand. I have this argument with myself all the time.) But isn’t that admitting defeat?

Here’s the thing—as I look down at their menu, I see ideas and flavors that sing to me. Something braised in red wine with Tokyo Turnips, Carrots and Horseradish Cream. Something sautéed with Baby Leeks, Fingerlings, Mache and Verjus. These are combinations that never show up in Risotto. They just sit on the menu, taunting me. While my fellow diners explore a world of possibilities, I’m chained to the culinary kids table. No matter how delicious the Risotto is, it still lives in the same neighborhood as all its cousins, somewhere near the corner of Creamy and Savory.

So do me a favor. If you know a chef, tell them to branch out. Tell them to try something new. Please. I’ll love them for it. I’ll sing their praises and send all my friends.

And if they refuse, bitch-slap them. For me.



Filed under Mid-range Meals, Rants, Reviews

4 responses to “Universal Cafe

  1. I know what you mean. Two musings on the subject, one dull, one interesting.

    Dull: I read a short note in the Chron about a new place called “Fish & Farm” near Union Square that would feature local ingredients. Given that we’re in one of the produce heavens of the world, you’d think that their menu would have interesting vegetable options. You’d be wrong. Meat, meat, fish, fowl, meat, and meat. But wait…the meat is “house cured.” Yippee! As if we don’t have enough house cured meat. The vegetarian offering on the sample menu is papardelle with some mushrooms, greens and onions. “Official” side dishes: mashed potatoes, greens, and pickles.

    Interesting (but unattainable?): Charlie Trotter was on the PBS show “Chef’s Story.” His cooking demo was about taking the humble vegetable of celery root and preparing it in many ways to explore tastes and textures. The ones I remember were baking the root in an egg white crust for a few hours, cooking cubes in a soy-yuzu marinade in sous vide manner, and making little ravioli of thin discs of the root stuffed with some kind of cashew ‘cheese.’ WOW was all I could think. His restaurant in Chicago offers a vegetarian tasting menu that must be mind blowing.

  2. Anne

    I thought of your blog today when the Chronicle’s “Accidental Vegetarian” column featured an item that is to me what risotto is to you: roasted vegetables. I rant about roasted vegetables until I bore those around me too. So I’ll listen to you rant about risotto any time (because I’m also totally on board with the risotto complaints).

  3. I just ate at Ubuntu last night in Napa – if this doesn’t satisfy your non-meat cravings, nothing will.

    I will write a review soon; meanwhile, I highly suggest you drive up there for lunch or dinner. Use these 2 articles as inspiration:


  4. Pingback: Ubuntu: a well-reviewed vegetarian restaurant in Napa, California • Slices of Blue Sky

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