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Darkness at the Edge of Town

[whitespace] Universal Cafe Universal Appeal: Universal Cafe offers traditional fare and an understated interior that disguise a menu simple in ingredients but provocative and innovative in its preparation.


New American comfort in a technological desert

By Michael Stabile

I love food, but i have relatively little geographical wanderlust in my search for dinner. I rely heavily on proximity. On rare days I may make it as far as Berkeley for Chez Panisse or Rockridge for Oliveto's or Oakland for Bay Wolf, but unless I have a spectacular reason to take a road trip to Yountville or Palo Alto, I prefer to remain city-bound. Dining at an out-of-town brasserie or bistro risks developing a long-distance romance, fraught with heartache and longing and delayed satisfaction. I'm impatient--I want a lover I can access at a moment's notice and whose memory I can bring back home with a cab ride.

Luckily for me, San Francisco is quite a food-fertile island, and I needn't go far to find a fulfilling night. Still, I do relish an occasional escape from the standard culinary corridors of Columbus, Fillmore or Valencia. Sometimes I want an evening that begins with appetizers and closes with a snifter of Armagnac, an evening untainted by the temptation of the bar on the corner. Perhaps the best remedy for such conflicting desires--for discretion and proximity--is the high-tech nether world of Potrero Flats. Flanked by the Mission, South of Market and Potrero Hill, the second multimedia gulch and so-far-acronymless district is dark, misty and quiet--bed-and-breakfast coziness for dinner.

The Slow Club, located in the imposing shadow of the Bay Guardian building, is as inspiring in its atmospheric simplicity (dark wooden tables, low, low lighting, small votive candles and a quietly uplit back bar) as it is professional in its conception. Given its nearness to the city's foremost authority on all things plebeian, one might expect light organics, "Uvas No" political platform plates, and a culinary base in the sustenance of the people. Thankfully, the kitchen is not as editorial as its neighbor. It offers contemporary American cuisine with a sly nod to both our Ellis Island roots and our aristocratic aspirations.

This mixture of high and low is more often complement than contradiction. A simple antipasto of marinated olives and beets was paired with delicate crimini mushrooms and herbed goat cheese. Steamed Manila clams were infused with a sweet wine and garlic sauce and deliciously offset with savory picholine olives. A moist and flaky blue-nose bass nested on mashed potatoes whose no-nonsense description belied its extreme elegance as much as a baseball cap and sunglasses do an incognito celebrity. A buttery fish with butter-licious potatoes raises the taste stakes exponentially--home-style with a touch of the Homeland but dolloped with a touch of heaven.

Leading a newer American comfort revolution in the heart of this virtual valley is Universal Cafe, an unassuming breakfast, lunch and dinner cove doors down from software upstarts and the cyberific Cosmo Bar. Like the Slow Club, Universal offers traditional fare and an understated interior that disguise a menu simple in ingredients but provocative and innovative in its preparation. New American cuisine incorporates fusion more directly than the less-assuming gourmet comfort food that distinguishes the Slow Club.

An organic green salad with gorgonzola dolce was barely kissed by a vinaigrette that gently tied the bitter greens to the sweet cheese and hidden candied pecans. Delicate Dungeness crab cakes were influenced as much by France as by Maryland or Northern California. Subtly seasoned and breaded, the scallop-sized islands were moated in a sweet red pepper sauce that, in a welcome relief, danced with rather than drowned the sea creatures.

A spring chicken entree was roasted until the meat slid off the bone with a soft prod of a fork, requiring one to search for the savory meat in the quicksand of woody mushroom risotto on which it rested. I often imagine filet mignon to melt like foie gras when quickly seared and left rare--I swear it does when I prepare it at home--but unfortunately Universal Cafe's bit seemed denuded of the marbleized fat that lends itself to such carnivorous pleasure. Or perhaps I overestimate my own kitchen prowess. Slightly tart gorgonzola mashed-potatoes rounded out this meat-and-potatoes plate seemingly planned with the bachelor gourmand in mind, but after the churn-blessed mashers of the Slow Club, they couldn't compare.

Neither restaurant is particularly inexpensive--although lunch at either is, as I often remind, a ridiculously brilliant way to enjoy the high end at a lower price--but considering the money you might spend for a similarly relaxing escape to Bodega Bay or Big Sur, it's hard to complain. The edge of town isn't a social wasteland anymore, and those willing to run from the center of evening attention (while retaining their urbanity) are well advised to head east, away from the fog and into the darkness.

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From the March 29, 1999 issue of the Metropolitan.

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