Universal – Goodbye to A Sydney Gem
You’re really making a statement when the worst thing you could say about a restaurant is the ultra-harsh orange light that spills out of a decorative wall fixture, as opposed to anything bad about the food. It says two things – that the food is awesome, and that the orange light really is quite annoying and harsh. Luckily, a quick chat to the waitress and we were seated much further away from the glare. It never did fully go away though.
But that’s no way to start talking about this magnificent restaurant. To be honest, I only decided to go after hearing that it’s closing down on the 27th of April. I mean yes, it was always on the list to visit – but as to when that would happen…that was indeterminate. I guess nothing gets humans going quite as much as scarcity. The booking was made, I am SO thankful I had a chance to dine at Universal before it closes – we are losing a star of Sydney eating, truly.
Date Visited: 26/1/2013
Address: Republic 2 Courtyard Palmer St Darlinghurst, NSW 2010
Go-to dish: gaytime goes nuts
The restaurant itself is exposed to the elements. Well, not completely, a portion of it is under a roof, while the outdoor portion is underneath a tarp. I can’t imagine it would provide good cover during particularly heavy rain, but a sunny day greets us when we went. The restaurant’s layout is functional, and has a bit of flair thanks to the variety in the colour of the chairs.
Universal does not serve a degustation, but rather slightly-larger-than degustation-sized dishes which are usually to share. It’s recommended maybe 3 dishes per person, and then a dessert. As my friend doesn’t eat too much, we decided to get 5 ‘courses’, sans dessert.
The expected sourdough bread comes…as expected. It would have been good, toasted, but tasted really good already by itself. It had the usual toughness – that is, difficult to break apart (along the crust) using knife and fork. So I just did my thing and picked it up and ate it directly. Class? Please.
Our first course comes in the form of a prawn & coconut ceviche. I gotta say, this could actually be my favourite savoury dish I had. And just an entrée too! The prawns were absolutely lovely. The texture was incredible, springy and resistive, but yielding to the appropriate bite. Each chomp will release a burst of spicy and tangy flavour which frankly, is something I’ve never tasted before. Christine Manfield, in her travels around the world really has her spices mastered.
And that popcorn – it was so sweet! And yet, served as a surprisingly good palate cleanser between bits of the rest of the dish.
Superb, superb spice utilisation. Flavour and texture – NAILED IT.
Up next, a taste of Asia with Sichuan spiced duck w/seared sea scallops. The duck itself was just a bit too dry, but not nearly as bad when taken with the eggplant sambal. Speaking of that, it was surprisingly good – I’m neutral towards eggplants, but it seems like it’s a case of cooking them the right way. This eggplant, almost puréed is rich with its natural flavour.
The scallops were amazing – they were tender and just juicy enough. I rarely have scallops this good, rarely.
The spices were more subtle in this dish, but they’re there. If you’re Asian and grew up in Sichuan this will make you nostalgic, but only slightly – Manfield still has her own unique stamp on this dish.
I had mixed feelings about this dish. On the one hand, I love the baked rock flathead, but on the other I really did not like the dehydrated quinoa as it was incredibly hard. You will find it hard trust me, even if you have good teeth as I just don’t think it should be this hard.
Avoid that though, and you get some pretty finely baked fish – the flesh is soft and tender, and the chermoula spices were lovely on the tongue. I tasted basil and cumin, and I’m not sure if I also tasted saffron. Yeah I probably did
The favourite dish of my friend, this slow braised rabbit pastry is really something. I’m tempted to call it a glorified pie, but even if I do, it’s one hell of a pie. The pastry was superb, crunchy and flaky with softer, hotter inner layers encapsulating a delicious rabbit filling. The rabbit is really something – slow braising gets rid of the common problem of toughness/stringiness with rabbit meat, making it as tender as any good pulled beef.
What really seals the deal is the gruyere cloud, this provides that exquisite hot creaminess that only comes from a good melted cheese, and is the perfect compliment to the rest of the dish.
Sublime, and a hard, hard act to beat.
Check out the innards below.
A very colourful dish thanks to its curry-like roots, the roasted john dory is a mixed bag. The fish itself is texturally decent (a little bit of toughness), but for some reason, seems to completely lack flavour. I find myself having to scoop up a lot of the soup just to give it some kind of flavour. Considering how the previous dishes have been executed, this came as quite the surprise.
The soup itself is actually best described as tasting like tom yum. No kidding, I felt like I was drinking almost the exact same. It tasted slightly more curry-like, but otherwise the resemblance is rather striking.
Is that a good thing? Yeah of course it is – if you like tom yum.
And now without further ado, I bring on the desserts.
By the way – though you can’t get a booking at Universal any more, they do have a walk-in table just for desserts/drinks. YEAH, THAT’S RIGHT. GET ON IT NOW.
BAM, here’s Universal’s signature dessert. The gaytime truly does go nuts. As my friend describes it (verbatim):
“AWESOME! IT WAS NUTASTIC!”
And indeed it was. The pastry was very sweet, the honeycomb was of excellent quality, and the ice cream superb. The dessert was crunchy all the way and you’ll NEVER get bored of eating it. There’s just so much going on whether it’s the pastry or the nuts or the caramel or the choc crunch.
Just go get it, words don’t do it justice.
But maybe one more picture, of the insides, will convince you:
Our next dessert is a little more sane, it’s a lot lighter than the gaytime, and Universal’s staff know this. They served us the gaytime first and the little miss sunshine afterwards, as a form of palate cleansing.
The sorbet, made of three fruits tasted half like sorbet and half like froyo. This is interesting, I could get used to this. I love both sorbet and froyo, and the biggest surprise is that the two together seem to work!
Particularly nice about this dessert were the fruits. The mango and papaya slices tasted fresh and complemented the dessert extremely well. Full of sugary sweetness, and a bit of passion fruit tang to boot!
Then when you’re nearly done, you’ve got some nice, fluffy aerated coconut cream to finish off. Mmm, refreshing.
Yes, it sucks that you can’t go to Universal any more, as bookings for it have gone through the roof. You can still try the desserts though. As for the food…well, this post pays homage to a great restaurant that was regrettably discovered late by me, and no doubt too late for most of you.
As usual, feel free to leave a comment or three
The Good: almost everything, food was sublime
What could use improvement: that harsh orange light is nasty. Some dishes had confronting textures/could use more flavour.
I give Universal a grand total of eight and a half Caesars out of ten – 8.5/10