Universal, Darlinghurst

universal restaurant, darlinghurst

Have you ever had an absolutely flawless restaurant experience?

I had wanted to visit Christine Manfield’s restaurant Universal in Darlinghurst for quite some time, and when trying to decide on somewhere to take Denea for a nice birthday lunch, it came to mind. The first thing that struck me was the amazing colourful décor. The vibrant pinks and oranges were cleverly offset with deep black and stark white. We were seated outside in the courtyard, with the shade cloth diffusing the bright sun to give me the perfect lighting for photos!

We started with champagne, of course, a beautiful Gosset Grand Rosé, one of Denea’s favourites that I loved as well. The menu reads like a journey through a far off land, and it’s clear that the influences come from far and wide. It’s designed to be a series of small dishes arranged from the lightest to heaviest for a kind of DIY degustation. We decide to share four dishes and a dessert, with matched wines.

universal restaurant, darlinghurst

Our first dish was the Sichuan Pepper Spiced Duck with asparagus, lychee and watercress salad. What an incredible dish! The duck was perfectly cooked, not overly spicy like I had expected it to be, with a beautiful fresh salad to accompany it. It was matched with two wines – an 07 Lost Valley Cortese and an 09 Tapanappa ‘Foggy Hill’ Pinot Noir, which both worked really well with the dish in completely different ways, the Pinot with the duck meat and the Cortese with the salad. It was a perfectly balanced dish.

universal restaurant, darlinghurst

Next was a beautiful Garam Masala stuffed eggplant with green mango, red beet and curry leaf, a gorgeously colourful dish that was absolutely packed with flavour. The textural contrast between the perfectly cooked eggplant and the salad was beautiful and the dish was perfectly matched with a beautiful, sweet 09 Foster e Rocco Sangiovese Rosé.

universal restaurant, darlinghurst

Another knockout dish was the Seared Venison with spiced beetroot, pearl barley and parsley walnut salsa, matched with an 09 L’Angalore Tavel Rosé. I would never have thought to put venison with beetroot and pomegranate but this combination worked amazingly well. I don’t want to overuse the word balanced but that’s exactly what it was. It’s clear in all the dishes that every element had been carefully thought out, with each bringing something special to create a beautiful dish.

universal restaurant, darlinghurst

Every dish was getting better and better but this one was undoubtedly the highlight of the meal. Denea went as far as to say it was one of the best restaurant dishes she’s eaten in a long time, and was tempted to order another serving. It was a Slow braised wagyu beef shin and bone marrow vol au vent with chestnut mushroom tempura and spinach puree. In a word, Wow.

It was rich and decadent, with the perfect textural contrast between crisp, buttery pastry and the perfectly cooked beef. The tempura mushrooms artfully arranged on top were a beautiful accompaniment and the spinach puree was a welcome source of greenery that helped to cut through the rich flavours. Only a gutsy, almost savoury red could stand up to those flavours and the 09 Domaine Singla ‘La Crinyane’ Carignan was perfect.

universal restaurant, darlinghurst

From the very beginning of the meal, I was very excited about Christine Manfield’s desserts. With four on the menu, it was a tough decision but we chose the deliciously naughty Ménage à Trois, a dark chocolate mousse cake with passionfruit curd and fromage blanc sherbet. Denea likened the decadent dessert to having an affair! I loved the combination of chocolate and passionfruit (possibly my all-time favourite macaron flavour) and the fromage blanc sherbet gave the dessert an almost savoury tang that worked in ways I can’t explain. A must-try dish.

universal restaurant, darlinghurst

We finish with a pot of Mariage Frères Margaret’s Hope Darjeeling, which is one of the prettiest teas I’ve ever tasted, and petit fours – some of the most gorgeous, perfect vanilla bean and caramel macarons I’ve ever seen! We sit back and sigh, happily because it was a truly amazing experience, but with a tinge of sadness that it had come to an end.

I don’t say this often, but I can’t praise Universal highly enough. Not only was the food absolutely incredible, the staff were attentive, friendly and very knowledgeable, and even though the lunch spanned over three hours, we never felt rushed. Every course was better than the last, which is rare but truly impressive. I only wish I got to try the Bananarama dessert that was so highly praised in Eat Show and Tell’s review!

Christine Manfield knows how to combine vibrant flavours and contrasting textures into incredible dishes and I can’t wait to get my hands on her cookbooks. I think dining here in the evening would have a completely different ambience, but during the day it was spectacular. While the meal was definitely on the expensive side, it was absolutely worth it. I loved that even with food that good, the atmosphere was completely unpretentious. Getting attitude by staff at popular restaurants is becoming tiresome. Universal is now firmly among my favourite Sydney restaurants, and was the best restaurant experience I’ve had in a very long time.

Universal Restaurant – Republic 2 Courtyard, Palmer St Darlinghurst (between Burton & Liverpool St)

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