Working on my piece on the best dishes of 2007 made me pleased (remembering just how much excellent food I consumed over the course of 12 months), chastened (remembering just how much excellent food I consumed over the course of 12 months), and expectant (I know there's great food out there, but I don't know where it is yet). There's something a tiny bit loaded about selecting the first restaurant of the year to review after that brisk trot down memory lane. South Food & Wine Bar appealed for several reasons. I'd been reading about new Australian cuisine (eclectic, Asian-influenced) for a number of years without ever being able to try it. Australia's native ingredients, especially its seafood and widely exported lamb, are famously superb. And, thanks to my friend Dan Philips of www.gratefulpalate.com, I was aware of the delights of Australian wines when most oenophiles were joking about them as more suitable for hand-to-hand combat than for food.
The brightly lit Caltrain station across the street looked like a piece of modern art, as sleek as a Calatrava, as I walked toward South on a damp, cold end-of-2007 night. I realized as I entered that the restaurant had taken over the concrete-box space of what had been an uninspired and uninspiring neighborhood breakfast-and-lunch joint. I would never have suspected that it could have been transformed into something so chic, warm, and inviting. Shades of caramel and toast prevail. There's lots of wood, in both pale (paneling) and warm (table) shades, and the space is adorned with striking sculptural pendant lights made of woven strips in different patterns. The smallish wine bar at the back is decoratively tiled.
I was slightly troubled by a glimpse of black upholstered benches — I crave lumbar support while I dine — so it was imperative that we snag one of the tables featuring inviting cream-colored modern cafe chairs. There was only one table for four available, right up against the big window overlooking Townsend, and there we sat.
The four of us ordered glasses of wine from South's enticing and frequently changing list of about six dozen Australian, New Zealand, and South African wines. The whites are helpfully divided into sparkly, crisp, fruity, and creamy; the reds into lively, silky, spicy, and gutsy (there's a short but alluring offering of dessert wines, which Aussies call stickies). The four wines we tried — a fruity Gewürztraminer and three diverse reds — were all enjoyable, though at $10 to $12 a glass, they can quickly add freight to your bill.
The two-sided printed menu seemed dichotomous. One side was a jokey and mildly illiterate mock newspaper titled Out From Under ("Australian's are historically passionate about drinking," "A dingo stole my baby," "Kiwi mates in a barney"). The reverse was a starkly printed, entirely lowercase listing of elegant dishes featuring exotic combinations (salmon sashimi with curry spice and lime; pan-roasted barramundi with rozelle spices, crushed harissa potatoes, and salsa verde). Among the starters, we were irresistibly drawn to the bushman's plate — "our version of antipasto," we were told — a frequently changing array of tidbits sized for two at $13 or four at $25. That night's assortment included tempura New Zealand greenlip mussels (most of the fish and meat is flown in from Down Under, and most of the fruit and vegetables are sourced locally); two tiny bruschette topped with diced tomatoes and minced garlic; hummus sided with crackerbread; two chunks of grilled lamb; duck rillettes; and a heap of thin strips of grilled zucchini. If that looks like an odd grouping, it tasted even weirder. The point of tempura, it seems to me, is crispness, but the crispness that night was largely obliterated by the mussels being mired in a mayonnaiselike sauce. (Even odder, I'd think, would be the other appearance of tempura mussels on the list, in coconut broth.) The hummus was ordinary, as were the bruschette, especially given their freight of underripe tomatoes. The duck rillettes were perfectly okay, but the little strips of cold zucchini were virtually flavorless. The only real treats on the plate were the chewy bits of well-seasoned lamb. But the whole assembly, especially during the holidays, reminded me of nothing so much as a quarrelsome family gathering.
We fared better with our other starters. The delicate South crab omelet was — again oddly, in my opinion — submerged in a light miso broth decorated with enoki mushrooms, but survived its dunking well. The marinated pork belly was not as lush and fatty as anticipated, but was enjoyable on its bed of creamy, bland cauliflower purée, tangy pickled cucumber, and sweetish tamarind dressing. Its companion scallop seemed an unnecessary afterthought. The best dish was an unusually plump and succulent grilled quail atop a hillock of what the menu calls courgette (we'd say zucchini), dressed up with basil, crunchy pine nuts, and chewy currants.
Our main dishes seemed uniformly overthought and overwrought, surprisingly so because the presiding chef, Luke Mangan, features much simpler recipes on his Web site. (The prolific and peripatetic Mangan, one of Australia's star restaurateurs, devised the menu and sent over trained cooks to man — or woman, in the case of chef Nicole Ferguson — the kitchen.) Friendly Aussie and Kiwi accents abound from the waitstaff as well as the co-owners, Australian Liz O'Connell and New Zealander Anna Weinberg, but our server was American, chilly, and unhelpful. My question as to what were the "rozelle spices" on our sadly overcooked and mushy chunk of barramundi went unanswered, until the Internet told me it was a mix containing lime leaves, lemon myrtle, cumin, ginger, garlic, galangal, caraway, and coriander. That description is more evocative than the dish was. I liked the flavor of the thin-sliced barbecued Australian beef, though it didn't taste at all of barbecue sauce or spice rub, merely like good beef. Its vegetable accompaniment, a messy mixed heap of thin logs of salsify, asparagus spears, cherry tomatoes, shavings of salty cheese, and a truffled verjus, again didn't seem to belong together or be properly blended.
The best main courses were the snapper and the lamb. The beautifully cooked Bay of Islands snapper's accompaniments, curried lentils and a thin sauce of coriander yogurt, made sense and enhanced each other and the fragile fish. The New Zealand lamb was again very tasty, although its garnishes seemed a trifle over-the-top: almonds, dates, pomelo, goat's-milk feta, and a beetroot purée that turned the plate into a bloody-looking mess. In this instance, however, most of the flavors worked well together.
After the fussy mains, we approached the dessert list with some trepidation, so we were surprised to discover that all four on offer were genius. The most unlikely one, Luke's licorice parfait with lime syrup, was completely divine: a shaky, delicate pudding in which the two main flavors meshed perfectly. ("If he puts his name on it, he must be proud of it," one of my companions sagely observed. I named it an early candidate for best dessert of 2008.) The pavlova (meringue with whipped cream and fresh fruit; in this case kiwis, strawberries, and citrus) was luscious, and the crunchy meringue, cream, and tart-sweet fruit played against each other in texture. The hot coconut pudding with caramelized pear and lime seduced us completely. "The desserts," I said, "are less sweet than the main courses." (And the presentation simpler.) We also adored the generous hunk of Roaring '40s blue cheese from King Island (near Tasmania), served with truffled honeycomb, a lovely combination.
And, as we hadn't earlier in the meal, we cleaned our plates.