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Heaven Topped With Gruyere Cream: Universal Restaurant

Christine Mansfield’s Darlinghurst establishment, Universal Restaurant, delivers food at a fine-dining standard with a relaxed atmosphere that lets you enjoy the matched wines and fresh, fun cocktails probably a little more than you should.

In an interesting approach, Universal’s menu is a “build-your-own” degustation. Each dish is entrĂ©e sized so you can order and try a few different things, tapas-style. As someone who hates committing to just one meal, this suits me just fine- it provides a bit more freedom to experiment. I may not want to entirely commit to a main meal of sweetbreads (ah, yep, that’s offal folks) but I’ll certainly have a crack at in as just one dish in an entire meal. I’m brave but I’m not that brave!

A salad of veal sweetbreads, pancetta and hazelnuts is gentle; almost meek, surprising for a chef known mostly for her love of spice. They sweetbreads are coated in panko (Japanese breadcrumbs) and deep-fried, which gives them a super-crunchy texture that is pleasing but I wonder if they served to hide the flavour of the sweetbreads a little too much? Hazelnuts in the salad were extravagantly yummy and yielding.

The prawn cerviche with sugar-cane popcorn and avocado salsa seemed a little gimmicky on the menu, but on the plate it was packed with flavour and fun to look at. The crunch of the popcorn gives way nicely to the smooth lick of avocado.

Kingfish and sea urchin tempura appear with a flourish – deliciously elegant perched in teeny mini-bamboo steamer baskets. The sweetness of the fish and the urchin is astonishing. It is clever of Mansfield to pare back any saucing, coating and accompaniments so that the seafood can shine without distraction.

The winner for me is barely baked goats cheese with mushroom tortellini and Gruyere cream. Rich, velvety and powerful – heaven on a plate! My dining companions, however, were gushing over the green chilli and galangal braised wagyu beef shin with prawn floss, wing beans and mint. The beef was slow-cooked to creamy, melting perfection and the freshness of the mint surprisingly critical to its success. Deceptively pea-like chilli balls lent a kick that was glorious. We’ll agree to disagree. Gruyere cream, people! Need I say more?

And so we come to dessert. No question – this is where Mansfield excels. Little Miss Muffet, a dome of silver-leafed mandarin jelly with lemon curd and grapefruit, is as tart and lush as Halle Berry’s left butt cheek and equally as curvaceous. A sweet sorbet tops off Bananarama, which, as expected, is packed with banana flavour. A salty peanut caramel crisp base gives it depth and crunch. It sings in a much more pleasing tone than any mid-80s pop starlets ever could.

Clockwise from bottom right: Christine Manfield, executive chef Jessica Muir, Elizabeth Carey, and Paul Guiney.

So as to continue the merriness that such an exciting and invigorating dinner has inspired, we end not with coffee but with a caffeine-heavy cocktail of Mt Gay rum, Hazelnut Vanilla Maple Syrup and Toussaint Liqueur; a heady, bitter concoction that had our heads spinning and our bodies buzzing. One is a revelation. More than one may force your brain to explode out of your skull.

The fiscal damage was significant. We didn’t stint or hold back at any juncture and frankly, my credit card is cursing my name right now. I, however, choose to be innocently oblivious. That’s a concern for another day. For today, all I can think about is that Gruyere cream.

words: Kristen Hodges


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