Universal may look like a new gentrifier, with its line of single-20-somethings, baby-carriage-pushing-30-something-brunch-goers, and its airy/chic/industrial/schoolhouse interior, but I’ll have you know that they’ve been in that space for 23 years – since 1994! Who am I kidding? You probably already knew – I’m a total latecomer on this one. I had no idea.

They even have some rock star chef cred – Jennifer Biesty, who competed on Top Chef in 2007, was an executive chef here. The original owners sold the restaurant to head chef Leslie Carr-Avalos, general manager Wendy St. John, and wine manager and buyer Armando Avalos (who started out as a dish-washer/busboy here!) in 2003. Carr-Avalos has been painting her vision of fresh, locavore, organic, New American/California cuisine ever since. Plus, yes, Leslie Carr became Leslie Carr-Avalos when she married Armando – making this a true family-owned restaurant. If that isn’t a great Mission story, I don’t know what is.

The other thing I didn’t know was that they served dinner. I was under the impression that Universal was strictly a brunch destination. But they do an evening meal too, and quite well. I went with a couple of friends so I could sample the most food possible. We started with an order of frites, to share….

Lovely, crispy taters, with fried rosemary. Excellent.

Next, fava toast…

Fava toast.

On crusty levain, fresh mashed favas sprinkled with pecorino romano, topped with whipped ricotta over little gem lettuces. This dish screamed Spring (it was May) and I think that of the many restaurants that tout the seasonality of their menus, Universal is really successful at it.

We also had teeny crab cakes…

Crab cakes

Small but full of crabby goodness. With remoulade – a classic French sauce made popular in Louisiana, with Creole spices. Perfectly sweet/tart dip for those crunchy little orbs

We split the mushroom ravioli with mint, brandy, cream and roasted swiss chard.

Mushroom ravioli.

Richness and light, the creaminess was nicely offset by the bitter greens.

Next up, roast chicken…

Roast chicken

Crispy skinned, on a bed of Springy vegetable couscous, drenched in the juices of the bird. Not the best dish of the night, although I loved the couscous.

And my favorite entree of the evening, the halibut.

Halibut.

Oh my – juicy, tender halibut in a white wine/caper sauce, with a schmear of buttery parsnip/yam puree, and crisp asparagus.

The menu at Universal changes quite often, so while you’ll never get tired of it, you may not get your favorites every time. No matter, that’s how you find new things to love.

This is how much I loved our dinner. I went to try their brunch the very next day.  I had a refreshing strawberry/watermelon agua fresca with prosecco to start.

Three of us split the heirloom carrot-shrimp bisque…

Creamy yet light, more carroty than shrimpy. We liked.

Probably the weakest dish of our breakfast was the scrambled eggs….

They were cooked just fine, but were a little dull – the asparagus, white cheddar and potatoes were scrambled into the eggs, but were barely discernible. With all the clean flavors of all the other items we had, this was disappointing in its muddledness.

My other friend ordered the muffin sandwich.

Egg muffin sandwich.

House made sourdough English muffin, fried egg, bacon, and cheddar, with a tarragon vinaigrette dressed salad. My friend ordered the bacon on the side, as she doesn’t partake, but we wanted to try it. Sadly, the bacon was wizened curled-up strips. It appeared to have been cooked earlier, en masse, and left to parch until an order came up. I know it’s a common restaurant practice, but it was a shame. The muffin sandwich itself, however, was delicious – the soft, pillowy muffin enveloped an oozy egg and cheese, and the whole buttery thing melted in your mouth.   I’d recommend it if they would fry the bacon up fresh. Or, be virtuous and get it without.

I ordered the winner, in my opinion…

Brisket and fried eggs! Almond wood-smoked, the meat was incredibly flavorful, tender and juicy, with a bright chimichurri sauce. Market lettuces, nicely dressed, and a baguette. I’d be hard-pressed not to order this the next time – although, again, because of the seasonality focus here, it probably wouldn’t be on the menu for a while. But I’d be happy to try the beignets, buffalo fried chicken sandwich, flatbreads, French toast, and an amazing-sounding “detox” bowl of greens, avocado puree, dukkah (an Egyptian herb/nut/spice blend), brown rice, tahini and poached eggs.

The fresh, clean flavors and utterly pleasing atmosphere at Universal makes this café a standout, as well as an old standby.

Universal Café
2814 19th St.
San Francisco, CA 94110
415-821-4608