There are restaurants that I’ve had bookmarked for years to go to, but somehow the timing has never quite worked out. Almost 2 years after I first read Squishies post on Universal I finally got to experience the glory that is Christine Mansfield’s desserts.
My eating partner in crime is Astroboy, making another rare appearance. It’s taken us months to get our act together only to be simultaneously taken down by illness the exact week we made our booking. Undeterred we finally found ourselves standing outside of Universal on a Thursday night and the only thing that went through my head was, “Damn that wall is orange.” Except I don’t think I used the word damn.
Nestled away in a courtyard Universal is an unassuming little restaurant, looking around I do a quick count and notice less than 20 tables available but at 6pm we’re the only ones eating. The decor of Universal makes me feel as though I’m sitting inside of a mosaic painting with the primary wall a vibrant orange, casting an orange haze over the crisp diagonal lines of the cutlery. Despite my best efforts I wasn’t able to remove all of the orange tinge from the photos, hopefully this doesn’t distract too much!
We’re mulling over the menu as the Sourdough arrives on the table, I’m unable to resist munching on it as the waiter explains the structure of the menu with dishes moving from light to heavy with a recommendation of 3 dishes each. In true form we decide to ignore this advice in favor of ordering more dessert.
The combination of Watermelon and Braised Octopus is a heady one, serving as the base of the dish is a perfectly level slice of watermelon which provides a sweet counterpoint to the strong kick of the Persian Feta and Anchovies which is then tempered off with the Braised Octopus. It’s a lovely way to start off dinner and I’m reluctant to relinquish the dish when it’s time to swap!
The Hiramasa Kingfish Tartare is a delicate construction, the various components are somehow all balancing all on top of itself and it’s a challenge to break through to create the perfect bite. The sweetness of the Eel is immediately apparent and what’s surprising is the rice component hidden below the eel. With the combination of the seaweed and kingfish, I can’t help but feel like I’m eating a ridiculously decadent sushi roll, albeit a ridiculously delicious one.
Scallops are a weakness of mine, and the moment I saw this dish on the menu I knew that it would be ending up in my belly, I know that Squishies would have zeroed in on this dish (her scallop obsession is infinitely worse than mine), if it were not for her terrible chilli tolerance.
Just before we reach for the dish, our waiter quickly stops by to let us know that yes, there is more than one scallop and we shan’t need to fight over it. Thus reassured we dig into the dish! Perfectly cooked, the Seared Sea Scallops are a joy to eat. It’s the various condiments accompanying the scallops that make this dish fascinating, Astroboy argues that the wasabi is overwhelming but even though I’m usually sensitive to the presence of Wasabi I find it a lovely compliment to the milder edamame and asparagus.
Our waiter seems to have a knack of guessing who has ordered each dish, despite the fact that we simply ordered in one long list. It’s the Mussels and Tumeric Lemongrass broth that have intrigued me, they’re ingredients I see often in Asian cooking but not together in a single dish. The Swordfish is a visual joy, the plating is beautiful and I admire it for a minute before promptly pushing over the fish and destroying the balance of it all.
Seared lightly on all surfaces the fish is cooked perfectly, but it’s the rich and slightly sour broth that’s my favorite part of the dish. The mussels are little pops of flavour and the palm heart has been sliced finely and cooked just enough to have a little bite to their texture. You had me at the soup, and the swordfish is my favourite dish of the night.
Strangely enough neither of us are in the mood for anything heavy tonight, luckily for me Astroboy’s choice of main is the Garam Masala Stuffed Eggplant which had been hovering as a second choice in my mind. The only thing I’m thinking after the first bite is, “Damn, this is a lot spicier than I thought it would be!” Except again, I don’t think I used the word damn.
The various components of the dish are lovely, the texture of the eggplant is firm enough not to be mushy and the green mango salsa is a welcome cut of fruit through the spiciness. By the end of the dish however, the Garam Masala has simply overtaken the entire dish and the only thing I can taste is burning.
All of the dishes on the menu are listed with matching wines, having finished off my cocktail I take a glance over the menu and decide on a whim to try one of the dessert wines. Moments later our waiter returns with the Liquer in his hands admitting the kitchen poured it out by mistake and offers it to us complimentary of the house. Don’t mind if we do!
The Liquer is much harder than anything I would normally order on my own, but I know after the first sip that Astroboy will adore it. It’s a pure chestnut sensation going down my throat, with the slightest burn of alcohol following. Luckily for me my dessert wine Vie de Constance is much smoother, sweet without being sickly.
I knew before opening the menu tonight that I was going to have the Gaytime Goes Nuts dessert. I’d heard rumors of it through the years and nothing was about to sway me from this crazy interpretation one of my favourite childhood ice-creams (the winner is still the old school Chocolate Paddlepop).
Arriving in an imposing tube of paper-thin caramel, there’s a moment of reflection as I ponder my course of attack.
There’s a swing of the spoon before a decisive, ‘Crack!’, and I’ve broken through the shell to reach the brilliantly smooth honeycomb ice-cream hidden within. The salted hazelnut caramels tumble-down onto the plate only to be scooped up with a spoonful of the sinfully rich caramel parfait. Despite the abundance of caramel the dessert somehow manages to avoid being overly sweet, the combination of the salt and nuts distract from all the caramel and with sips of the hazelnut Liquer the plate is cleaned off quickly.
We’ve failed in our attempt of three desserts, somehow we only have enough room for two but are determined to make it count. The last dish to arrive is Queen Bee, Astroboy’s choice. The Honey Pears have been layered in a dome and sit on an incredibly crisp base of filo pastry. It’s a wonderful play on textures and flavours, with the relatively mild pears, the crunch of the pastry all topped off with the sharp tang of the yoghurt sorbet.
We’re relaxing over one last pot of Opium Hill Tea, a Thai blue tea, appropriately named because the hills the tea is grown on are used to cultivate opium. Astroboy is a tea fanatic and asks who the tea supplier is, only to be told the teas are sourced directly from Paris. By the look in her eyes, she’s a woman with a mission and I know she won’t rest until she’s tracked down that tea!
The restaurant is packed out by the time we’re packing up our bags to leave, service has been quiet and efficient all night with that tiny touch of humor that makes everything all that much better. It’s been a night two years in the planning but if I have my way, I’ll be back again and it won’t take me near as long to return!
Republic 2 Courtyard Palmer Street,
Between Burton & Liverpool
Darlinghurst NSW 2010Ph: (02) 9331 0709