Saturday, 20 April 2013

Universal, 19 April 2013

Christine Manfield, renowned Australian chef and author, recently announced that she will be closing the 2-chef hat Universal Restaurant for good on the 27th April. Christine Manfield is Australia’s queen of spices, with a reputation for being able to create food with loads and loads of delicious flavours. Following the announcement, the restaurant is solidly booked out every night til it closes. I had not yet dined at Universal so I decided that I must sample Christine Manfield’s food before it goes forever.  I secured a booking at 6pm on 19th April about one month in advance and was informed that I would need to finish my meal by 8.15pm due to the overwhelming demand. 
The anticipation was running high for this meal in the weeks and days leading up to the 19th. I was hoping for an amazing meal that I will remember for a long time. Also, I recently purchased a Sony DSC RX-100, so I was eager to test out my new toy and hopefully take some awesome pictures. The RX-100 really is quite a nifty little device. It is compact, fits into your pocket and can take some really high quality pictures. As I am a major novice in taking pictures, I do apologise for the quality for some of these pics as I am still getting the hang of this wonderful device.   
Universal logo
Dining room
The menu

Any way, onto the food…
First up is bread, which was a sourdough and extra virgin olive oil. The sourdough was decent, however it was not served warm so therefore it did not have a nice crust – a bit chewy rather than crunchy. I liked the oil though – it had a very robust flavour.      

Ruby baby
My wife ordered a mocktail , ruby baby. This was a grapefruit and raspberry based mocktail and it was quite a pleasant and refreshing drink. Also, it was not overly sweet, as some cocktails and mocktails turn out.  
First course
Coriander and lamb brain wontons, white pepper broth, sweet sausage, ginger garlic relish
I had the lamb brains wonton as my first course, which is Christine Manfield’s take on the Chinese dish, short soup or wonton soup. I am a big fan of lamb brains and I don’t think enough restaurants make use of this ingredient. I think most people can’t get over the fact they are eating brains so don’t try it, which is a shame because it is a wonderful ingredient. The wontons were great. I love the texture of lamb brains and love how well they go in a wonton. They just melt in your mouth and are really nice and creamy. Quite different from your usual wontons from a Chinese restaurant, which use pork and of course have a lot more bite. The broth was really fragrant and lots of nice sweet and savoury flavours from the ginger, garlic and thin slices of sweet sausage (lap cheong). However I found the white pepper to be quite overpowering. The pepper flavour dominated.  It was so strong that I still had mouthful of pepper on my palate when I was having my second course. Besides this, the first course was quite enjoyable.       

Smoked silken tofu and shitake mushroom sandwich, steamed garlic eggplant, chilli sambal, ginger garlic relish
My wife had the tofu. My wife enjoyed the tofu, which had a nice crispy outside and a soft, silky smooth centre with shitake mushrooms sandwiched in between . Underneath the tofu sandwich was a parade of different flavours. The eggplant was nicely cooked and mixed in with a chilli sambal, which was both sweet and spicy. My wife found that the heat from the chilli dominated the dish (keeping in mind that she does not do well with spicy food). But overall, this was an enjoyable first course.           

Second course
Grilled haloumi, toasted walnut crumble, coriander yoghurt relish, freekah, pomegranate and fennel
This was my wife’s second course and also her favourite savoury course. The grilled haloumi was a delight. Sometimes haloumi can be tough and rubbery. However this haloumi was anything but that. It was actually a bit soft and melted in the mouth. The toasted walnut crumble was great and gave the dish a nice textural element as well as flavour. The sweet flavour pops from the pomegranate go together nicely with the saltiness from the haloumi.

Seared ocean trout, steamed garlic eggplant, caramelised cherry tomatoes, hot and sour shallot relish
My second course was the ocean trout. This was a pleasant course that I found the flavours in this dish to be well balanced and complementing each other nicely. The ocean trout was cooked well however I would have preferred it to be a more rare as it was slightly dry. The skin was nice and crisp. I loved the accompaniments to the ocean trout, which added  lots of different savoury, sweet, sour flavours and a hint of heat. The cherry tomatoes also provided a nice bursts of flavour.   

Third course

Rare roasted venison, beetroot and horseradish spelt risotto, goats cheese cigar
My final savoury course was the venison, which is actually quite a gamey piece of meat. The meat was nice and rare so the meat was tender and was full of flavour. I really liked the goats cheese cigar,  which was crispy. And of course the sweetness from the beetroot goes perfectly well with salty and creamy goats cheese. What I enjoyed the most from this dish was the spelt  risotto. It has a nice bite and goes well with beetroot and horseradish. Overall this was a well executed dish with classic flavour combinations, but it did not quite have the wow factor to make it a truly amazing dish. 

Beetroot and horseradish spelt risotto, roasted golden beets, goats cheese cigar
My wife’s final savoury course is essentially the vegetarian version of my dish, with golden beets in place of venison. It’s a visually stunning dish with those golden beets to go with the deep red risotto!    
And now onto the desserts, which are the highlight for most people at Universal…

Gaytime goes nuts - honeycomb ice cream, caramel parfait, chocolate crunch, salted hazelnut caramel
Of course we ordered the (in)famous Gaytime Goes Nuts. This is a dessert that is really worth going nuts for! It really is a brilliant dessert that I can’t believe that I didn’t try until now. It is just YUM – much nutty goodness! The caramel, amazing. The honeycomb ice cream, delicious. Chocolate crunch, brilliant.  It really is a great dessert in terms of flavour and texture.  It’s very hard to describe in words how good this version of Gaytime is.

Mister Fawlty - basil panna cotta, strawberry jelly, raspberries, orange croquant
For the other dessert we went for Mr Fawlty, an interesting and much lighter dessert than the Gaytime Goes Nuts. The most interesting aspect of this dessert was the basil panna cotta , which was a vibrant green. It wasn’t really a panna cotta at all. It was so soft and barely held its shape. It felt more like a light mousse. It was a nice, creamy and refreshing basil panna cotta that went nicely with the fruits. Another great dessert!  

Although, the food, overall, was generally good and quite enjoyable (the food quality is the main criteria for rating my dining experiences), I feel like I must devote a section to the quality of the service. Unfortunately for Universal, the service, which started out about being personable and pleasant, went downhill. I am not sure what the reason is for this, perhaps it was due to the restaurant being really busy in the final two weeks. The pacing of the meal felt quite quick for fine dining. It felt like each course was being dished out with only a momentary break. This was probably due to the fact that the restaurant was trying to fit in 2 seatings as a result of the increased demand. So I am willing to overlook this. However, it seemed  like each course was being thrown at us with little to no description of what we were eating. Also, there were times when it looked like the staff were more interested in talking to each other in a corner rather than serving the customers. What really summed up the service for the evening was when we ordered tea to go with the desserts. We ordered black tea so it is reasonable for us to expect  that it would be served with milk and sugar.  This was not the case when the waiter dropped off only the pots of tea and cups. So I asked one of the waitresses for some milk and sugar. When the waitress came back with the milk and sugar, I instead got an empty pitcher with no milk in it! So not only did it take two goes to get milk and sugar for our tea, we did not get any chocolate truffles either, which were listed on the menu. By this stage, we could not be bothered asking for them,we  asked for the bill so we could leave. I am finding it hard to not let the quality of the service influence my assessment of the food, which for the most part was enjoyable,  but unfortunately patchy service at restaurants does leave a lasting impression of the entire experience. 

Highlight: Gaytime goes nuts! 
Lowlight: The service which I don’t think was up to the standard of a hatted restaurant.
Overall: I am happy to have dined at Universal before it leaves Sydney forever. It is sad to see Universal go. I don’t think there any many other Mod Oz fine dining restaurant in Sydney, if any, that utilises so many different spices to create dishes that have bags of flavours.  There were some memorable courses, in particular the desserts, only for the overall experience to be tarnished by the service. 6.5/10 (Good) 
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