Variety and variables
Despite lapses, University Cafe in Palo Alto keeps 'em coming back
There is variety and there are variables at University Cafe in downtown Palo Alto. The menu is lengthy, focusing on brunch, espresso bar fare, sandwiches and salads by day, sandwiches and entrees later on. Service and quality can be as shifting as the spring breezes.
My first visit did not start off well. I was told by a waiter to sit anywhere, so I chose a small table near the front. After I seated myself, hung my jacket, unfurled the napkin and sipped the water, another waiter came by and told me I had to move to make room for a larger party.
On subsequent visits, service by the wait staff was generally punctual but the kitchen was often too slow or excessively fast in producing orders. When the cafe was busy, I got the impression that the kitchen was overwhelmed, backing up orders and leaving customers glancing anxiously at their watches.
Early one evening, however, the entrees appeared when we were not halfway through our appetizers. The server was intent on plunking the plates atop our first course but was shooed off by a waiter from across the room.
Open since 1994, not much has physically changed over the years. The large coffee roaster sits mid-space, the high ceiling is dotted with skylights and gently whirling fans, the walls are painted an earthy beige. Even the receipts still stamp the long-changed 415 area code on them. It could still be 1994, 2004 or 2014; the ambient space is rather timeless.
The food is pretty good overall, simple and straightforward, and it's easy to find something appetizing. The prices are sub-market and portions more than generous. No wonder University Cafe is always busy.
With tables inches apart, fragments of conversation from adjoining tables float by. Several times I heard rave reviews: "This is my favorite place," "Huge portion," "Can't beat these prices," "Wow, the food looks great," was among the banter.
Chicken pot pie ($10) was a tad on the salty, soupy side but came with generous chunks of chicken, carrots, mushrooms, peas and asparagus under a thin elastic pastry crust. The salad greens it came with were limp as a wash cloth — fresh perhaps, but not crisp.
The frittata rustica ($12) took over a half hour to appear. It was tasty once I lit into the fluffy eggs, roasted red peppers, onions, spinach, tomato and bits of bacon with cheese melted over. A couple of thick home fries and toast accompanied. A personal happy meal available until 4 p.m. daily.
We were caught off guard by the presentation of the beet salad ($9). Usually, the beets in a beet salad are diced or thinly sliced, but these were thick sliced and about the size of a small Frisbee. The whole beets these slices were taken from must have been the size of volleyballs. They came with a mountain of salad greens. It could easily have been a meal in itself, had that been our intent.
The crab cake ($10) was golden crispy outside and filled with loads of creamy Dungeness crab. The sauce, which was listed as curry, wasn't, or at least I couldn't detect any. Instead, the velvety tomato-based red sauce complimented the crab cake. Crispy leeks added a nice finishing touch.
Salmon risotto ($15) was a buttery, rich, well-conceived dish. The "risotto" was made from roasted butternut squash, allowing a texture that was slightly coarser and sweeter than risotto made from silkier and nuttier arborio rice. It was also made with wine, asparagus and parmesan cheese. Very tasty.
The steak stir fry ($12) of onions, peppers, large button mushrooms, julienne carrots, green beans and brown rice was an odd combination of ingredients that delightfully harmonized. The chunks of steak were teriyaki-tossed and tender. It wasn't an identifiably ethnic Asian dish — perhaps pan-Asian is a better description.
The spaghetti carbonara ($12) was especially good, a generous portion with nicely integrated ingredients. Despite the high marks, the pancetta wasn't crisped and contributed little to the flavors of an otherwise fine dish. Crisped pancetta, added to eggs and parmesan cheese, is what makes a carbonara a carbonara.
Dessert-wise, the chocolate cake ($5.50) was massive and gooey and more than satisfied my partner's craving for chocolate. The icing had been troweled on thick and was layered throughout the cake. It was served too cold though and was a tad on the dry side.
The apple tartlet ($5.50) was too chilled and dried out. Too bad, because what was edible had been artfully conceived and executed. As it was, the tart seemed to have been in the refrigerator about a day too long. Two bites was all I cared for.
The carrot cake ($4.95) was a prodigious multi-layered affair. The cake had delectable flavors that were sweetish and nutty, but the thick smear of layers of icing swamped the effort. It was a challenge to fork some cake and get just a little dollop of frosting. When I finished eating, the remaining icing could have frosted another whole cake or two. Alas, all the desserts were too cold, drying them out and robbing them of flavor.
University Cafe has been a popular spot for over 15 years, and for obvious reasons — it rates a "wow" on portion size but with pleasing prices. There are service issues that need addressing, but no one seems to mind too much. CharStyle:endbullet>n
271 University Ave., Palo Alto
Sunday-Thursday 7 a.m.-10 p.m.
Friday-Saturday 7 a.m.-11 p.m.