Trail Mix: University Cafe

Jan. 14, 2011, 12:33 a.m.

Trail Mix: University Cafe
(CELESTE NOCHE/The Stanford Daily)

While tomatoes seem so integral to Italian cuisine, they were actually only introduced to the region in the 16th century. The fruit was well-suited, though, to the flavor profiles of the region’s other main ingredients, and it made sense to incorporate it so thoroughly. University Café seems to have a different approach to Italian food and doesn’t seem concerned with adding anything new or interesting to the multitude of options already available. That lack of inspiration produces a mediocre dining experience.

Most things on the menu are acceptable but far from remarkable, especially the pasta selection. The roasted butternut squash ravioli has so much potential but is poorly executed. The pasta itself is too thin and resembles a flavorless wonton, while the butternut squash filling does not really deliver the feelings of fall and winter that you would want from a gourd filling. The dish also comes in a pool of butter that weighs the dish down more than necessary.

Trail Mix: University Cafe The prawn linguini was similarly forgettable. The “light cream sauce” was actually fairly heavy (even if they didn’t use heavy cream) and overall came off a bit cookie-cutter.

The sandwich offerings suffer from the same problem. The Tuscan chicken sandwich, for example, is flavorful but not noteworthy. The sun-dried tomato aioli is not as sweet as perhaps it should be and does not make the sandwich anything worth returning for. Likewise, the “Palo Alto’s Club Sandwich” is decent but certainly not a cut above a typical club sandwich, and it comes out perhaps a bit too greasy with the aioli on the brioche toast. Even the side of roasted potatoes that comes with the sandwiches is underwhelming. While nothing failed, those in the mood for a sandwich are much better served elsewhere.

The one divergence from typical Italian-American fusion at University Cafe, the occasional Thai influence, is awkward and produces some notable failures. Specifically, the vegetarian curry is horrendous. The curry materially lacks flavor and absolutely pales in comparison to some of the nearby restaurants such as Bangkok Cuisine. Searing the tofu prevents it from absorbing much of the flavor. The dish is not plated well, and nothing about it is appetizing. And while it is likely not a common occurrence, the rice served to me was undercooked and crunchy, adding insult to injury.

University Cafe does have some positive aspects. The atmosphere in particular is actually fairly cute. High ceilings and a moderately charming décor create a pleasant ambiance that could make for a simple first date (if the food were better) or a lunch or dinner with friends who have a bit of time.

Ultimately, though, I am forced to politely disagree with Juliet’s famous argument, “What’s in a name?” University Cafe is just a cafe on University Avenue – as unimaginative and uninspired as the food. While smart ordering may lead you to an acceptable meal, with so many other options, it’s not clear why one should take the risk; there is no dish that really stands out. Accordingly, “don’t bother” giving this one a shot.

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