Okay, let me admit up front that we set off—nephew Rob, his Spanish girlfriend Inma, husband Mark, and my father Manuel—to eat at Flour + Water. It’s a good crew to review with as everyone loves food and three of us cook.
But walking east on 20th Street at 8 p.m. we knew from the folks spilling out the front door onto Folsom that it was going to be a wait: two hours as it turned out. Too long. We headed northeast for the Universal Café.
Often it can be difficult to get into Universal, but we waited only a few minutes. While we stood at the bar, I asked for a red wine recommendation and was immediately reminded why this place has long been a neighborhood favorite. The waitress thought a minute and then starting raving about the Cinnabar, 2006 Mercury Rising. At $34 a bottle, it’s one of the least expensive on the menu. The waitress had it right—full and rich.
Soon, we sat at the table with the wine and two grilled flatbreads. Ah, time to sit back and relax. The flatbreads—thinner than any thin pizza in town—are a mainstay. This one had rock shrimp, pesto, potatoes, and goat cheese. How do you get perfectly cooked shrimp—meaning not overcooked—on a crispy thin bread? They do.
“That shrimp,” Rob said, summing up what we were all thinking.
Mark had slow-braised pork ribs with beans, and avocado and chicory slaw ($22). “They melt,” said Mark, a meat-and-potato man from Cleveland who has eaten enough meat to know melt when he tastes it.
Inma felt the same way about her risotto with sweet peas, fava beans, chive blossoms and parmigiano reggiano ($16.50). “The rice is perfectly cooked,” she said.
“I wish they would add a little color to this,” dad said as he started adding pepper to the pale but very good, he decided, celery soup ($8).
For me, I wanted less feta in the farro salad. It arrived as a clump and the feta overpowered the farro and came close to being too salty.
Rob had complained of having to dine again after eating a late lunch, so we were surprised to see the waitress walk over to his side of the table with a charcoal-grilled Niman flatiron steak with shoestring potatoes and wild mushroom butter sauce ($25).
“If there were a normal amount of french fries it wouldn’t look so large,” he protested when we all started laughing. Anyway, he said, he ordered it to try the mushroom butter sauce. “Very disappointing,” he concluded after a while. “It’s like a glob of margarine. It doesn’t taste like mushrooms.”
The steak, however, he liked. And the shoestring potatoes we loved. But for a 21-year-old, Rob’s difficult to please and he noted that the design of the benches meant you could sometimes get hardware in your back. “Comfort over style,” he advised.
Or maybe it was just getting late. Dad’s bargain instinct kicked in when the waitress came to take dessert orders. “Let me tell you,” he warned her, pointing at me. “She’s reporting on your food.”
He ignored me. “That’s okay. I’ll have the coffee on the house.”
Gratefully, the waitress ignored him. We topped the meal off with biscotti—”delish,” as Rob says.
My rating may be high given the farro salad and the mushroom sauce, but I’ve eaten at Universal at least three times in the last month—and I keep returning.
For me, it’s sort of like Chez Panisse in Berkeley—a place you can depend on to take out-of-town foodies.
Verdict: Four out of Five Aguas Frescas
2814 19th St.