Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Universal Restaurant, Sydney

Things have changed since I last posted. I'm just back from a long vacation and Australia has had a change of government. Change is good, especially when it's a move from a party that's slightly to the right of the Nazis to a man who appeared on one of Australia's most popular TV shows and told us who he'd "turn gay for" (his wife, rather bizarrely, but I guess we all now know who wears the trousers in that relationship). More excitingly, the lead singer of Midnight Oil (remember them?) is Minister for the Environment, and the drummer from INXS is Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Amid this cornucopia of change, Christine Mansfield has moved back to Sydney and opened Universal in Darlinghurst. I never got to East@West in London, a comment I heard from several people when she closed and that probably explains why she didn't make it. She's moved back home with several of the team from London and has set up in a rather odd place in the Inner East. I like the space; it's bright, colourful and the open front blends indoors and outdoors really well. Guess I can't see how it's going to work in winter, no matter how many artfully rolled up blankets they leave on each banquette. But never-mind, this is a space that doesn't really look like a restaurant and at least it's not owned by Gordon Ramsey. The menu is "tasting size portions" but doesn't seem to be designed to share, so it's actually clever marketing to get you to spend more money on less food. And you get to be all territorial over your plate. Still, they supply lots of cutlery, should the desire to share overtake you. Each plate on the tempting menu comes with a wine suggestion, which is fine if you want to build your own degustation menu and wine flight, but it was Tuesday night and I really just wanted a simple bite to eat. I must be getting old, but it's nice to not have a "concept" to get from time to time. Matching one wine to a possible 12 different dishes across the four of us was going to be impossible, so we had a bottle of Twofold Riesling from the (I thought) quite expensive wine-list.

Mansfield's famed for her spicing and ability to build harmonious plates of complicated food. I'm not sure she succeeded tonight. A beginning of lamb sweetbreads with surface ripened goats cheese and hazelnuts was a selection of well sourced ingredients, slightly wrongly matched. Everything was high quality and well executed, but I'm still not convinced by a cheese and sweetbread pairing. Worse was a lobster hot and sour soup with an incendiary broth, and a complaint got an unhelpful "did you think we were joking when we said Hot and Sour Soup?". No, but neither did I expect the Universal Gaytime on the desert menu to involve Liza Minnelli and a bottle of poppers.

Luckily our final plates picked up a bit and my rosy veal (don't shudder, all of us who drink milk have a moral responsibility to eat veal) with caramelised foie gras was a juicy piece of sous vide veal and a nice sliver of foie. Sous vide meat can be a bit like nursing home food, but this hit the spot and started to live up to some of the hyperbole lavished on this place.

A chocolate Extravaganza and a decaf long black (with a very rich, very tiny fruit and nut brownie) finished off one side of the table and I managed to make enough puppy-dog eyes to get a couple of spoonfuls of a fairy-floss garnished but otherwise very grown-up peach and vanilla yoghurt panacotta desert from Giles and Kerrie.

The bill? $500. And there's the rub. This isn't cheap and it could be more filling. That said, it's a good way to try a DIY degustation style menu in glamorous, relaxed, informal surroundings. But I don't need a starter restaurant, and this just didn't quite do it for me.

Universal Restaurant
Republic 2 Courtyard, Palmer Street, (between Liverpool & Burton Sts), Darlinghurst
(02) 9331 0709

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