Cafe Society

The Universal: Biscuits rise to the occasion -- but the grits fall flat

Fried chicken would fit right in at The Universal. For that matter, so would Paula Deen, given all the butter whisked into the grits that have become synonymous with this breakfast-and-lunch spot in a Sunnyside strip mall. But the restaurant isn't as Southern as those "grits of the day" make it seem, and fried chicken is noticeably absent from the menu.

"Fryers still bring me nightmares," quips Steven Sharp, who owns the restaurant with his wife, Kourtnie Harris. Sharp's first job was frying chicken at a fast-food restaurant in Orange County, and while the experience wasn't so bad that it scared him away from the food industry — he's worked at restaurants off and on his entire life — it scarred him enough that decades later, when he finally got his own spot, he opened the Universal without a fryer. And no fryer means no fried chicken.

This is bad news if you've got a hankering for fried bird. But it's good news for anyone looking for alternatives to the greasy fried potatoes you often find oozing onto your eggs at breakfast. At the Universal, the spuds that accompany the restaurant's eggs Benedict, fried-egg sandwich and egg scrambles (chicken-apple sausage and chèvre or bacon and tomato) are sliced razor-thin, soaked in water to draw out the starch, then griddled until the edges are golden. Where the nearly translucent potatoes overlap, they stick together in a bond of crispiness that goes as nicely with eggs as almonds do with chocolate. Try them with the veggie eggs Benedict, with tomatoes, sautéed chard and caramelized onions standing in for the ham, and you'll be happier than a schoolkid out for summer break.

Both Harris and Sharp grew up in California, not the South, which helps explain their restaurant's slant. While Sharp remembers trying and liking grits at a friend's house and enjoying home-style cooking when he visited relatives in Texas and Oklahoma, what he really wanted to create at the Universal was an homage to his favorite meal. "Ever since I was a kid, I've loved breakfast," admits Sharp, who has a special fondness for the pancakes his dad would make on Saturday and Sunday mornings. That might be why he resists the description of the Universal as a place for brunch, a meal he associates with dinner-focused restaurants pushing fancy morning fare on weekends. His idea — executed in a space he designed and built by hand, with white-tile walls, black booths, a cement floor and a central counter — is homier than that.

Yet the place does have a strong Southern bent, in part because of its opening chef, a North Carolinian named Seth Gray who helped design the menu. Despite Gray's contentious departure and replacement by kitchen manager Marc Schellhorn this winter — Gray has said that his recipe book was copied without his consent; Sharp says Gray was caught in the kitchen, trying to light what looked like inventory sheets on fire — Gray's fingerprints are still apparent in the kitchen. The pulled-pork sandwich is pure Tarheel, with meat smoked out back and tossed in a vinegary North Carolina-style barbecue sauce, as are the grits, which can be ordered as a side, with two eggs and meat, or as the daily grits special. But these days, the grits don't always greet you with a warm Southern welcome. At one recent meal, grits that should have been silky were gritty instead, a disappointing bed to pork belly in a sweet raspberry gastrique. Had the Thai chiles listed on the board actually made an appearance in the dish, they would have helped the special, though the grits would still have needed more milk, water and patience.

But the biscuits! They would make Paula Deen proud. Nearly three inches tall, the rich, flaky creations have as many layers as shale, each one telling a story of the hands that folded it. These butter-laden delights can be ordered with sausage gravy or as a side with raspberry jam, which is how I prefer them, with a cup of Denver-based Coda coffee to start the meal.

Rivaling the biscuits in height is another Southern staple, cornbread, which is hearty (from course-ground cornmeal), light, and not too sweet. The cornbread is key to the restaurant's best seller, the cornbread rancheros, with fried eggs, black beans, roasted-tomato salsa, avocado and cheddar. But mine wasn't layered as promised on the menu, so the dish felt less like a cohesive whole than an order of Mexican eggs with a side of cornbread. A lackluster order at that, with chalky, under-salted beans that did the fried eggs no favors. But even with better beans and layered cornbread, I'm not sure this preparation would be a winner, since cornbread — unlike traditional corn tortillas — is prone to sogginess.

Fortunately, my friends and I had also ordered the banana-walnut pancakes, pleasantly tangy from an all-buttermilk batter and topped with candied walnuts and bananas, as well as the crowd-pleasing custard toast. Served in a deep bowl, with berries (or, in fall and winter, tart apple compote), the toast is the breakfast equivalent of a soufflé that needs to be pre-ordered at the start of the meal. The dish takes twenty minutes to make — longer than that if you count the overnight soak in a nutmeg-scented custard — with eggy brioche griddled until brown and finished in the oven. On a menu without dessert, this powdered-sugar-dusted dish could easily stand in for one.

Sharp stresses that he never set out to create a Sassafras-like spot, with shrimp and grits and filé powder and such. After all, the restaurant is called the Universal, not the Southern. And the sandwiches definitely have universal appeal, especially the grass-fed burger and the standout banh mi, with nubby tempeh, sambal-spiked mayonnaise, and sweet-and-spicy pickled cucumbers, carrots and onions. So does the Greek-style yogurt, which the kitchen further strains over cheesecloth until it's nearly as thick as camembert, then layers with granola and enough fruit for a fruit bowl.

Having just celebrated the restaurant's one-year anniversary in a spot that quickly swallowed up many earlier efforts, Sharp is busy making plans for the future. The counter is scheduled for a facelift, its display case soon to be full of Coda coffee beans, T-shirts, chocolate chip cookies and maybe Anson Mills heirloom grits. By the end of the summer, he hopes to have the Universal open seven days a week, and says he's even considering branching out into dinner. Who knows? Maybe Paula Deen's oven-fried chicken won't be too far behind. No fryers required.

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Gretchen Kurtz has worked as a writer for 25 years; during that time she's stomped grapes in Napa, eaten b'stilla in Fez, and baked with Buddy Valastro, aka the Cake Boss. Her work has appeared in publications including Boulevard (Paris), Diversion, the New York Times and Westword. Our restaurant critic since 2012, she loves helping you decide where to eat and drink tonight.
Contact: Gretchen Kurtz