Christine Manfield. Berta. Six weeks. Go on, you know you want to.
Berta has been busy. After O Tama Carey – winner of Time Out Sydney’s most recent Chef of the Year gong – departed in late 2014, one-time Claude’s patron-chef Chui Lee Luk took over while a replacement was sought. New head chef Jamie Irving (formerly of Rushcutters) is now in place – and he comes with a bonus: local legend Christine Manfield is there with him as part of a six-week stint.
Manfield hasn’t exactly kept quiet since the highly lauded Universal shut its doors in 2013. She popped up at Nomad last year, and continues to embark on international culinary tours. Now she’s cooking in the low-key style of Berta, while still bringing an unbeatably high level of panache. If you’re a fan, try nabbing a seat at the bar so you can watch her in the kitchen beyond.
The seasonally focussed menu here changes virtually every day; on our visit, the black brook trout has just taken up residence on the blackboard. What a way to start. Served with popping roe and a pared-back fennel and radish salad dressed with the tiniest hint of pickled ginger, the fish is super soft and pleasingly meaty against the other, more delicate elements.
Skip the pâté in favour of something more adventurous, like three little herb-crusted sardines topped with salsa verde. Sardines needs to be served at a near-impossible level of freshness, which can be hard to achieve in warmer climates like ours. Here they are clean tasting and fragrant with the smell of the sea, and the herbs complement rather than conceal that oceanic tinge.
A main of casarecce (short lengths of slightly curled pasta) with duck ragu and eggplant showcases a classic Berta approach to cooking: homey, simple and exactly what you want on a cold night. More flavoursome is the lamb forequarter. The richness of the soft meat is enhanced by a garlic-heavy salsa rustica replete with salty caper pops and Lombardo peppers. Order the green beans on the side; they’re also tossed with garlic as well as preserved lemon, and slick with fruity, nutty olive oil.
Manfield is best known for desserts, which means they’re a can’t-miss course. And because Berta isn’t Universal, here they’re less fussy here than what she might have made in the past. (Though we’re definitely hoping Gaytime Goes Nuts might make an appearance at the ‘Going Nuts’ sagra dinner on Tue May 26.) A chocolate tart is rich and pleasingly bitter, but our pick is the meringue. A sharp lemon curd tops an ultra-chewy meringue base, while fresh raspberries and a crisp almond meringue hat adorn the top.
Across five restaurants, Manfield has proved she can turn her hand to just about every kind of cooking – and to excellent results. Now she’s mastering Berta. It’s impressive though, to be honest, we’re not surprised. This is your chance to discover – or remind yourself – why Manfield remains so revered. Get in, but be quick. Berta’s special guest star exits the kitchen after Sat Jun 6.