The clock is ticking, Sydney. Christine Manfield has just five more weeks left in her cameo at Berta, and that means just five more Tuesday-night Sagra dinners. On the strength of last night's showing, that means you have just five more chances to get in on one of the best deals you'll see in Australian dining in 2015: a generous four courses from one of the most distinctive chefs of a generation, for just $65.
Under Berta's founding chef O Tama Carey, Berta's Sagra nights gained a cult following for their inventive celebrations of a single ingredient each week, and Manfield, who shares the kitchen with new chef Jamie Irving (pictured), has embraced the tradition.
Though Manfield said she thought choosing eggplant, her favourite ingredient, for her maiden voyage last night was cheating, the army of her fans who marched through the door for the two seatings were rapt.
The antipasti made a very welcome opening salvo, not least the sweet-sour spiced eggplant and peppers stained with turmeric, and focaccia spread with salty eggplant butter.
Pappardelle tossed with a ragù of eggplant and slow-braised duck followed, its duck liver-boosted richness complemented neatly by a nebbiolo grown in Lombardy, and then a fillet of wild kingfish, fat and juicy on a bed of warmly spiced honey and harissa eggplant.
And to close? A clean, crisp pear and ricotta chocolate tart freshened up with yoghurt sorbet, all the more delectable for its pairing with a glass of Piedmontese brachetto.
The challenges presented by the size of the kitchen and brigade were refreshing, Manfield said. "I kept wanting to add another element to the dishes, but had to keep batting my hand away." The result was a winning balance of Berta's trademark restraint and Manfield generosity.
Next week it's the Sagra of Autumn Milks, which will make use of cow, goat's and sheep's milk in curds, whey, cheeses and more. On Tuesday 12 May, Manfield won't be in the kitchen, but Irving will present a menu of grains and greens they've designed together, then on the 19th she's back for quince. The 26 May Sagra will be "going nuts" and then, for the finale of her time at Berta, it's the Sagra of Wild Things (From the Sea).
Manfield will be cooking alongside Irving and sharing duties writing the regular à la carte menus over this period too, of course, but there's something special about these mini-festivals - not least their outstanding value.
As Manfield says with a twinkle in her eye, "See you next Tuesday."
Berta, 17-19 Alberta St, Sydney, (02) 9264 6133