Some visitors to Sydney, such as London chef John Torode, think the local dining scene has lost its get-up-and-go. "Nothing seems to have moved on, and I've had some very ordinary meals," he said in an interview that ran in all the Australian newspapers while I was there.
I suspect he was looking in the wrong places. When money is tight and the local economy won't sustain hugely expensive high-profile openings every week, you get creative – find a low-rent diner, team up with mates who have cooked in France, Spain or England and open your own gaff. So the really exciting stuff in Sydney is under the radar, at the small but sophisticated tapas bar Bodega, the no-frills Fishface, and the fresh little open-kitchened Ten Buck Alley café – all places you would be happy to have in this country.
Torode's tirade is already out-of-date anyway, with the August opening of Christine Manfield's Universal restaurant. Yes, the same blonde, tussock-haired Manfield who moved from Sydney to London in 2003 to open the short-lived East @ West. In the airy courtyard of a designer apartment block, the Tina Engelen-designed dining- room is as outside as it is inside, diners dramatically silhouetted against sensuously bright orange walls like the opening titles of a Bond movie.
Moulded-plastic chairs are cheekily bright, their low-budget kitsch playing off linen cloths, fine glassware and chunky, portable banquettes that form instant booths in the courtyard. At night, they all get hauled into a loading dock, in an admirable display of the contemporary temporary. So far, so Sydney.
Manfield has evolved her menu style to offer 14 small-to-medium dishes of universal inspiration, listed by flavour intensity. Three dishes plus a pud seems to be the norm. It is extravagantly flavoured food, yet sophisticated in form and texture, with as many layers of complexity as French cuisine. Neither Manfield nor head chef Jessica Muir would know how to short-cut if they tried.
A dizzying salad of spiced quail spiked with tamarind, longan, kaffir lime leaf and crisp fried shallots (£10) is the best savoury mince possible, a delicious whirl of tang and tingle reminiscent of a Thai nam sod or larb.
Thai influences come to bear again in two deftly rolled cylinders of lacy egg net enfolding salted duck egg, pomelo, asparagus and warm chilli coconut sauce (£8). It is as lush as a dessert, but with a nutty, salty sting in its tail.
Matching wine with such firecracker flavours can be painful, but the list is full of suitably fresh, light and fruit-driven wines, including an intense, juicy 2005 Gembrook Hill Sauvignon Blanc from the Yarra Valley (£27).
Produce is the best available, and I melt before a Mediterranean-inspired chunky fillet of Murray cod (£12) teamed with a salad of Iberian ham (Sydney's latest love affair), fennel and orange, topped with a crust of crushed dried olive, orange zest and crushed fennel seed. The cod is farmed but has a flavour and presence I can only describe as noble.
Sometimes the flavour-hounding goes too far – a little bird's nest of smoked eel, pickled mango and trout caviar is wrapped in a furl of ocean trout (£10) that I find too harshly hot-smoked.
The desserts tend to take their inspiration from comforting Australian kiddie treats. Raspberry ripple is a miniature children's birthday party of raspberries and meringue heavy on vanilla-yoghurt cream, while a pyramid-shaped "Gaytime" of hazelnut chocolate, caramel with honeycomb ice-cream is great fun, but feels a little bit dated.
The Universal won't have universal appeal – too "gaytime" for some, too pricey for others – but it is Sydney on a succession of small plates, fulfilling a real need for chic, high-energy food that fuses East and West, past and future without compromise. On the floor, some of Sydney's sharpest do their job without fuss or favour.
Manfield clearly needs Sydney in order to do her best work, and Sydney needs Manfield to show it where to go next. And John Torode, you can go back now.
Scores 1-9 stay home and cook 10-11 needs help 12 ok 13 pleasant enough 14 good 15 very good
16 capable of greatness 17 special, can't wait to go back 18 highly honourable 19 unique and memorable 20 as good as it gets
Universal Republic, Courtyard, Palmer Street, Darlinghurst, Sydney,Australia, tel: 00 612 9331 0709, (www.universalrestaurant.com). Lunch Fri. Dinner Mon-Sat. Around £130 for two, including wine and service
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