In a city full of Cali-influenced cuisine, it's nice to know that fresh, bright-tasting food can actually be from somewhere else too. And no, I'm not talking Vietnamese, or Thai, or Japanese. I'm talking antipodean, mate. After traveling in Australia in early 2007, I was definitely excited for the opening of ~SOUTH FOOD + WINE BAR~ in San Francisco. I was smitten as a kitten with the cuisine I experienced when I was Down Under, full of fish (kitties like fish), great produce, Asian influences and ingredients, and exotic spices that made fusion actually interesting, instead of a sitting duck for derision. South is Australian chef Luke Mangan's first stateside venture--he partnered up with Anna Weinberg (a Kiwi) and Liz O' Connell (an Aussie), two ladies with some serious restaurant and wine experience behind them. The odds are quite good you'll encounter some accents here. Good on ya.
It's a funky little spot in SoMa, and definitely off the beaten path (you can pretend you're on a walkabout); but it's actually just across from the Caltrain station. The building itself is rather office-nondescript blah, but once you're inside the restaurant, all kinds of funky details and visual personality will catch your eye, like the lively Maori-inspired pattern under the bar, the unique bent plywood woven overhead lamps, the modern white chairs and barstools, and a 16-foot communal table of jarrah wood. It's casual, comfortable, and very likely busy busy--even on what I thought would be a sleepy Tuesday night, au contraire, it was hoppin'. And no, there isn't another room behind the fabric along the wall--what you see is what you get.
I ate a lunch and dinner at South soon after it opened, but just recently had another dinner there and was able to try some of the brand-spankin'-new dishes that have been placed on the "ModOz" menu. While I'll miss the succulent quail, the new menu should give folks a reason to return and see what's new.
When you sit down, you'll be presented with bread, olive oil, and dukkah, a nut and spice blend you'll find on tables and bars all over Australia and New Zealand. To start, there's the bushman's plate ($13 for two/$25 for four), a rotating platter of bites, or fresh oysters (MP). Instead, I was drawn to a frothy and light spring pea soup ($9), enough to convert the pea soup-hater I was dining with--the variation that came with the pork trotter and tarragon tortellini ($12) was tasty, but the tortellini was so large it proved cumbersome to eat.
I've enjoyed the sashimi on offer, but especially fell for the new dish of Australian kingfish sashimi ($14), with ginger, shallots, arugula, and a Persian feta I have never tasted the likes of. I know, fish and cheese, my Italian relatives are clutching their chests. Whatever. This dish was bright, interesting, and on point. The salmon with curry oil ($13) is another winner, partly because Mangan sources some awesome curry and other spices on the menu that are actually custom blends. Again, fresh and fab flavors here.
Meow, even more seafood: the BBQ prawns ($13) were butterflied and perfectly seared, and came with a refreshing but sodden salad of carrot, radish, raisin, mint, and tahini. The starters definitely fall in the more spendy side of things (averaging $12-$13), but there's also a ton of seafood, which is never cheap. Vegetarians will find a few options, but the menu only has about eight selections per section, so don't expect an Ubuntu-esque bounty of choices.
I don't know how I can ever pass up the barramundi ($24), a fish I'm seeing pop up on more menus around town. The latest variation on the menu comes with perfect crispy skin, plump and tender mussels, refreshing dill and cucumber, and Rozelle spices, a kicky and fragrant blend ranging from cumin to cayenne. Fish and chips ($19) are a classic dish, and executed well here, and of course there's some lamb ($23), in this case some loin with sumac, celeriac puree, and asparagus. The sirloin steak I tried ($25) was a bit tough (it's grass fed) so I think the kitchen will still be working that one out. You'll also see plenty of beets, and pumpkin, rocket (arugula) making appearances, all Aussie ingredient standards.
South serves lunch, with items like a venison burger ($16) with spicy beet chutney (unusual flavors, but good), and other numbers, like a lamb salad ($15)--everything is around that price point, so don't come here expecting an $8 sandwich. Haven't been able to say g'day to the weekend brunch (mmmm, the crab omelette with enoki mushrooms and miso mustard broth sounds like a winner--$11), but I'd wager it's a fun scene; any Aussie in town knows about South, it's like a tractor beam. And in case you didn't get the memo, Aussies and Kiwis are rather rowdy and fun-lovin' folks, even before a few pots or schooners of Foster's (which I didn't see anyone drinking when I traveled there).
Never mind the beer, let's talk about the wines. It's a good list to explore, featuring many small producers, ranging from sparkly to crisp to fruity (the '06 Huia pinot gris was luscious with the barramundi) to creamy whites, and then flip it over for reds that are lively (everyone needs to try the sparkling shiraz at least once), silky, spicy, and gutsy. You can read up on a number of the winemakers in the loo (you'll see), but if Aussie and Kiwi wines are an unfamiliar zone for you, your (most likely) capable server will be able to steer you to a good choice. Yup, try those unoaked chardonnays, go nuts.
For dessert, you can do up some Aussie classics like Pavlova (a meringue with fruit and whipped cream, $8), Mangan's much-discussed licorice parfait ($10), or my personal favorite, some Roaring '40s blue cheese from Tasmania with truffled honeycomb ($11).
The attitude is laid-back but professional, and while the prices veer into a spendier business-dining zone, there are no white tablecloths here, mate. I have always seen quite the young professional crowd (fresh off the Caltrain?) snuggled up at the bar or tucked in at the close tables. It can sometimes veer on the louder/cramped side, but at least (almost) everyone is quite friendly and chatty. It draws a good clientele, so it's a fab spot to hit with the girls, for a lively second date, a fun client lunch, or if you're up for some food with a twist that isn't like anything else in town.
South Food + Wine Bar
330 Townsend St., Ste. 101
Cross: 4th St.
San Francisco, CA 94107
Closed Sun night