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South Food and Wine Bar

Down Under Dining Spices Up the City

One might wonder what defines New Zealand or Australian cuisine if one had never been to either place. But when I heard South was opening, with its “down under" concept, I began reminiscing about my visits to these beautiful and bountiful destinations for food and wine. I dreamt of barramundi (a delicious white fish that balances delicate flavor with meatiness), local produce, and lots of lamb and beef -- with an Asian undercurrent -- paired with delicious native wines that have quickly gained status in recent years.

South is headed by Luke Mangan, an international celebrity chef. His resume includes owning two established restaurants in Sydney, penning several cookbooks, and consulting for Virgin after earning the graces of Richard Branson. Mangan’s partners Anna Weinberg and Liz O’Connell both carry clout as well, from their winery and restaurant experiences in their native countries.

The team's casual, 50-seat space, planted across the street from the Caltrain station, presents a spare, natural setting with lots of dark wood, beautiful wooden basket-like chandeliers, a central communal table, and a bar which displays Maori-inspired tiles. The square space feels roomier than its actual size, design elements don’t feel overdone, and menus' newspaper-style backsides bring a little humor -- along with trivia on Australia and New Zealand.

Details are key. So when we ordered sparkling water, we were impressed to see that Antipodes, a New Zealand bottled spring water, was served. This water can only be found in a handful of restaurants in San Francisco, which include Coi and Absinthe, and it really is divine. Fresh bread is accompanied by olive oil and dukka, a savory blend of nuts and dry Northern African spices. Staff is genuine, honest and friendly, like the variety of people I met on visits to both countries.

To our disappointment, the raw oysters, marinated pork belly, and lamb entrée were popular with Cirque du Soleil diners, so there were none left by the time we arrived for the second seating. We resigned ourselves to try the coconut broth with tempura New Zealand green lip mussels ($11). There’s a reason why this dish calls out broth first. The bowl of balanced broth is the spotlight, accompanied by two fried mussels. To be fair, the broth elicited a nice balance of coconut and lime, and the fried oysters were nicely battered, but the dish would have done better to focus on the wonderful shellfish of New Zealand.

The bushman’s plate ($13 for 2 / $25 for 4), a miscellany consisting of hummus, grilled zucchini, grilled lamb sausage, and tempura oysters, accompanied by tartar sauce made with chopped cornichons, was an okay beginner for the meal, but not very exciting. The salad of haloumi, apple, fennel, walnuts and beetroot tossed with wild rocket ($12) was refreshing, seasoned nicely by the familiar dukka spice. The fried New Zealand native haloumi cheese carries a beautiful resemblance to feta in texture, with a touch more salt and slightly less sharp.

The barbecued chicken accompanied by roasted parsnip, yellow beans, and grape, drizzled with a currant dressing ($19) was a combination of slightly too many flavors. The dukka spices found their way into this course as well. The moist slices of barbecued beef with truffled verjus ($25) fared better on our palates, with the balance of cleaner flavors and components of roasted cherry tomatoes and asparagus.

By far, the pan roasted barramundi ($24) was the winner. Seasoned with rozelle spices (a blend that is not limited to lemon myrtle, lime leaves, coriander, cumin, ginger, and garlic) and paired with crushed harissa potatoes, the perfectly roasted fish is completed with a smoky yet grassy salsa verde.

The fish entrees have a dazzling reputation, in fact; a foodie friend who dined recently at South reported that the two fish entrees on the menu at the time were not only the highlight of the meal, but the two of the best dishes she'd had in months of sampling new Bay Area restaurants.

As expected, wines are southern hemisphere-centric. Offerings are not too foreign, with a good range of New Zealand sauvignon blancs and pinot noirs alongside Australian shiraz and cabernet blends. All the wines carry enough heft to match the well-seasoned food.

For dessert, the pavlova with kiwi slices and strawberries ($9) is the way to go if you’re looking for something authentic, which is essentially a meringue. Luke’s licorice parfait ($10) is another must-try. For someone who does not like licorice, I have to say the licorice flavor is compelling -- more floral than medicinal. Lime syrup drizzled over the parfait adds a nice citrus touch.

If the spices were downplayed just slightly, South would hit the mark on all fronts. It’s not quite what you would expect from a café in Australia or New Zealand, but it’s a good indication of the lovely cuisine the two countries have to offer. In Australian words, good on them!

Australian/New Zealand

Reservations Essential? No.