Same old story, different restaurant. We have wanted to go forever, but never actually got around to it until they decided they were closing. Yes, that’s right, after six years Christine Manfield has decided to close Universal at the end of April to focus on other projects. So naturally when I heard the news I booked us in.
Christine Manfield is a well-known Australian chef who has headed up a number of restaurants over the years – Paragon, Pheonix, Paramount, East @ West (London) and Universal. Both Paramount and Universal have received critical acclaim and 2 hats in the SMH Good Food Guide every year of their existence. In addition to her restaurants Christine has penned a number of cookbooks, created a range of spice pastes, leads gastronomic tours through India, Morocco, Spain etc., teaches at Sydney Seafood School, has appeared on Masterchef and is involved in various other ventures.
The menu is a la carte in style and the recommendation is 3 dishes if you’d normally eat an entree and main or 4-5 dishes if you’d like an entree-main-dessert sized meal. With most dishes around the $30 mark Universal is not cheap. Yet knowing it was the one and only time we would experience it we knew the prices wouldn’t hold us back. Funnily enough the first menus we received didn’t even have pricing on them, it was only when we received menus to order desserts that we could actually see the prices.
prawn and coconut ceviche, green chilli salsa, palm sugar popcorn ($30.00).
I decided on the prawns as soon as I read the description on the menu. A complex dish right from the word go I thought WOW, we’re off to a good start here. The ceviche was icy cold and had a wonderful balance of sweet, savoury and heat from the chilli. I’ve had prawn and coconut before but never prawn ceviche with freshly shaved coconut; an incredible combination with the green chilli salsa just right to lift the ceviche to new heights. At first the palm sugar popcorn kind of freaked me out – but in a good way – a fun play with textures. I absolutely adored my starter and would have been content with more of the same.
hiramasa kingfish sashimi, sweet grilled eel, pickled seaweed, shiso and finger lime salad, yuzu jelly ($30.00).
There was so much going on with Dylan’s sashimi dish it is hard to tell where to begin. It was quite a stack they had going on there and quite frankly there was no possible way you’d be able to get all elements into a single mouthful. In dismantling the stack we sampled the kingfish first – a lovely piece of sashimi. Hints of smoke laced the charred eel and the combination in the salad was wonderfully textural. What left a lasting impression was the yuzu jelly – it had a greater intensity than anticipated, overpowering anything that came in contact with it. Another great dish to start the evening, but perhaps a little less yuzu next time.
green chermoula baked rock flathead, zucchini flower fritter, quinoa, butter bean and green pea salad ($29.00).
Round two and I was sticking with seafood with my choice of fish. Beautifully cooked, the rock flathead had herbaceous notes from the baked chermoula which were subtle enough to give the fish the starring role but still prevalent enough to be noticed. Who doesn’t love zucchini flowers? You just can’t go wrong with them as far as I am concerned and the little fritter balancing on top of the fish was no exception. Balance in flavours and textures in the salad paired really well with the fish. In essence it was a lovely dish but for some reason I was expecting more.
rare roasted venison, beetroot and horseradish spelt risotto, goat’s cheese cigar ($31.00).
Dylan’s meal took a very different turn from mine with his choice of venison for second course. Superbly cooked, soft and succulent without any hints of chewiness or toughness (hurrah!), the venison impressed from the start. A firm filling of goat’s cheese filled the crispy cigar and though mild it was still ever so tasty. The biggest surprise was how enamoured Dylan was with the spelt risotto. While not two of my favourite ingredients it has to be said that beetroot and horseradish pair so well and the colour of the spelt was such a deep red it looked amazing. Dylan just couldn’t get enough of the risotto.
smoked silken tofu and shiitake mushroom sandwich, yellow beans, chilli caramel ($30.00).
I had heard Christine Manfield does vegetarian dishes really well. And while vegetarianism is not for me I decided to be different and order a vegetarian dish for round 3. I do love tofu so I was interested to see how a dish with tofu at its core could be done. Well let me tell you it was an awesome ‘sandwich’ of lightly smoked silken tofu and shiitake mushrooms. Creamy tofu and earthy mushrooms were gorgeous on their own but then the hit of chilli caramel gets to you and its a flavour party in my mouth. Another impressive dish and one that was surprisingly filling. For lack of a better word it felt quite meaty and was more than adequate.
sichuan spiced duck, seared sea scallops, asparagus, lychee, smoked eggplant sambal ($32.00).
Dylan’s final savoury dish is one I had been considering ordering myself. We were both surprised to see a rectangle of pressed duck on the plate – we assumed it would be a leg, or breast, or something but just not what he got. Expectations aside it was a nice portion of duck with a hint of sichuan, far from what I would call spicy. Seared scallops were plump and juicy while the lychees were sweet and texturally contrasting the crisp, dry duck. Overall it was a ‘nice’ dish but nothing to really write home about.
gaytime goes nuts – honeycomb ice cream, caramel parfait, chocolate crunch, salted hazelnut caramel ($25.00).
The main reason I have wanted to go to Universal for five years now is the infamous gaytime goes nuts. I’d read about it years ago when it was called ‘Universal Gaytime’ and have been curious ever since. And then of course Christine went on Masterchef and everyone under the sun heard about the dessert. No doubt this is how it has suddenly attracted the $25 price tag.
Honeycomb, honeycomb ice cream, caramel parfait, salted hazelnut caramel, chocolate wafers. Yes it was awesome and a magical dessert but was it worth the price tag? Honestly, I don’t think so. Sorry, I know it would take hours to make and I’d never try to make it myself, but after all the hype I was hoping it was worthy of such adoration.
snap crackle pop – cherries and blackberries, chocolate rice crisp, chocolate cherry ice cream and ginger granita ($20.00).
Why on earth Dylan ordered this dessert, I have no idea. Probably to be different or even just because none of the other offerings really grabbed him. But it was definitely not what he would normally choose. Fresh and clean, the ginger granita started things off quite nicely. Although melting faster than it could be eaten the chocolate cherry ice cream was rich and smooth and seemed at home with the granita. Apart from these two the dessert just didn’t do it for Dylan or I. there was some cracking in the rice crisp but to be honest it wasn’t all that enjoyable and it all just seemed a little disjointed. I found it quite weird and Dylan was not a fan at all – he would have been happier without dessert.
Finishing with a round of coffees we were greeted with some petits fours. Two words: POP ROCKS! Chocolate truffles with pop rocks to be precise. I loved these so much I fought Mr O for Em’s one. They were so damn good I wanted a whole bag to devour on the way home.
And there you have it. We finally dined at Universal. The verdict? Some dishes were extremely impressive while others left us wanting. Mr O loved every single dish he ordered but Em’s out-take was similar to ours. We’re glad we got to experience it but have to say it’s expensive for what it is and I’m not sure we’d be rushing back if it were remaining open.
Republic 2 Courtyard Palmer Street
Between Burton & Liverpool
Darlinghurst NSW 2010
(02) 9331 0709