Universal Restaurant – more than just a gaytime?

Universal Restaurant – Republic 2 Courtyard, Palmer St, Darlinghurst. http://www.universalrestaurant.com

While I had been away, I was chatting to A about having a reunion over a nice meal, to which he suggested Universal Restaurant. Upon googling it, I discovered it was none other than Christine Manfield’s restaurant. I had seen Christine on Masterchef Australia and heard about her cookbook. I immediately obliged.

We booked about 2 months ahead as we had a large party of 8 in our booking. What a smart move, for we went to dine there last Thursday, the night after Christine Manfield’s gaytime goes nuts was featured in the finale of Masterchef Australia 2012. While watching the finale, I could think of nothing else except ‘I’m going to be eating this tomorrow!!’ Expectations were high.

The actual restaurant was very different to what I pictured. Given its 2 hat status, I was expecting a more formal setting. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the more casual, open-air setting that didn’t have that air of stuffiness that some hatted (or even unhatted) restaurants around town have. Universal takes out the sometimes artificial formality to fine dining – I felt like I was just dining at my local neighbourhood restaurant – a big tick in my opinion.

Interior of Universal

The wine list was extensive – our waitress was very knowledgeable and helped us narrow down to a pinot from Burgundy, which was spot on. We ended up going with this drop again as it was so good.

There were 16 dishes on the menu (& more on the vegetarian one) – an excellent variety of dishes usually uncharacteristic of fine dining. I was particularly pleased to see the wide ranging global influence on the menu, from Asia, South America to Europe, although Asia dominates (Chinese, Japanese, Thai & Indian). Our waitress explained that the menu was tapas-style in that there was no separation for entrees/mains, but that we should order 2-3 dishes each. We ordered 2 each.

Some of the savoury dishes we ate (around $20 each):

  • Sichuan spiced duck, seared sea scallops, palm heart, smoked eggplant sambal: this dish was incredible, although I have to admit to being biased as a massive duck and scallops fan. While I was initially a bit nervous about this combination, it worked beautifully; particularly with the kick of the sambal and the smokiness of the eggplant. This was my favourite savoury dish :)
  • Suckling lamb, smoked bacon, sweet potato, green peas, sweet onions and mint : another great dish, very delicately balanced. Again, I had never tried a combination of lamb and bacon, but it worked very well. The lamb was cooked perfectly and the sweet potato was a nice accompaniment.
  • Roasted ocean trout, steamed mussels, turmeric lemongrass broth, cavolo nero: I was incredibly excited about the prospect of having ocean trout and mussels in the same dish. While the dish was very tasty, I have to admit that I was slightly disappointed – the flavours weren’t as vibrant and zippy as the previous two dishes.
  • Stir fried XO chilli squid, chinese sweet sausage, snake bean sambal: a very beautiful dish, with a nice balance of squid with the salad and the tanginess of the sambal.
  • Lamb brain fritters, spiced pumpkin, green lentils and candied mandarin: I have to admit, I wasn’t bold enough to try this one – A had this dish, seemed satisfied.

Clockwise from top left: chilli squid, spiced duck & seared scallops, suckling lamb & smoked bacon, ocean trout & steamed mussels

And the dessert (no, we didn’t all order the same one):

  • Gaytime goes nuts – honeycomb icecream, caramel parfait, chocolate crunch, salted hazelnut caramel: need I say more? PURE DECADENCE. If you haven’t seen the Masterchef episode, you will not know what the fuss is all about. It is worth the hype. I would come back to Universal Restaurant just for this!
  • Sugar daddy – araguani chocolate mousse, chocolate sacher cake, chestnut liquer jelly, candied cumquats: this was an absolutely beautiful dessert, with the candied cumquats sitting elegantly on top of the chocolate base. It was delicious – however, I will have to confess that my tastebuds were blinded after having the ‘gaytime goes nuts’ – anything I ate afterwards seemed to pale in comparison. I will have to return and try this solo to do it justice.
  • I go to rio – caramelised pineapple, vanilla rum cream, cardamom shortbread, coconut sand, passionfruit banana sorbet: another masterpiece, beautifully presented. Again, disclaimer – I need to return and try this solo.

Clockwise from top left: lamb brain fritters, sugar daddy, i go to rio, gaytime goes nuts

I’m not sure if the highlight of the evening was smashing and devouring that ‘gaytime goes nuts’, or what was to follow. Christine Manfield herself came out and chatted to our table for a whole five to ten minutes. Yes. And she appeared to be genuinely interested in where we were from, where we had travelled and in answering our questions.

A perfect climax to a fine dining experience. Just superb.

And to answer the title of this post – yes, Universal was more than just a gaytime :)

the verdict: 8.5/10 – a great fine dining experience all round – food, service & ambience. extensive menu & wine list caters to vast array of taste buds. my only qualm would be value for money.

dont forget to order: the ‘gaytime goes nuts’. JUST INCREDIBLE.

to try next time: the other desserts, to get a true appreciation for them without tastebuds being blinded by the gaytime goes nuts!

Universal on Urbanspoon

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