Wine Spectator blog on South

Those who have been there know how well Australia’s food scene has kept up with the wines in quality and innovation. Surprisingly few Aussies have ventured to this side of the Pacific Ocean to show us what they can do, however. Now one of the best has gained a foothold in San Francisco.

Luke Mangan, whose restaurants in Sydney (and now Tokyo) get high accolades, is the culinary mind behind South Food + Wine Bar, which opened in November in SF’s trendy South of Market district. The 50-seat bistro has a casual vibe, an all-Australia, New Zealand and South Africa wine list, and a real taste of Oz.

Mangan’s partners in South know what they’re about when it comes to things antipodean. Liz O’Connell, born in Perth, grew up at her parents’ winery, Mandalay Lane. She left her vice president’s position with Foster’s, Australia’s largest wine company, to pursue this project with New Zealand-born Anna Weinberg.

She most recently managed Ame, husband and wife team Hiro Sone and Lissa Doumani’s San Francisco sister restaurant to their Napa Valley-based Terra.

Carved out of what had been a deli in a warehouse-type commercial building across the street from the Caltrain station (and two blocks from AT&T Park, where the Giants play baseball), the space is fitted out with tables made of jarra, a beautifully grained Australian hardwood, and wood-lattice light fixtures designed by New Zealander David Trubridge.

“We didn’t want any koalas or kangaroos,” Liz said. The restaurant’s designer, Chloe Warner, based her wall mosaic on Anna’s carved Maori necklace.

The buzzing crowd scene attests to how well these partners have thought through what they’re doing. For example, Mangan obviously can’t be there all the time, so he installed Nicole Ferguson as chef.

She worked with him for six years, and most recently opened a resort in South Africa for Richard Branson of Virgin. She runs the kitchen between Mangan’s visits, planned for every couple of months.

Ferguson encloses whole New Zealand green lip mussels in delicate dumplings, floating them in a mildly spicy coconut broth, pefect for a fresh white like Leasingham Riesling Magnus 2004 ($28). “Rozelle Spices,” an aromatic blend from Australia, flavors grilled fillets of barramundi, a white-fleshed fish, nicely enhancing Vasse Felix Chardonnay Adams Road 2005 ($46).

A good way to start is with the Bushman’s Plate, ($13 for two), a platter of interestingly cut and seasoned grilled vegetables, salame and lamb sausages. It’s the sort of thing you see served at Australian cellar doors (what they call tasting rooms).

The salmon sashimi, made from pure-tasting Tasmanian salmon and drizzled with lime cream, also mates well with the Southern Hemisphere’s crisp, aromatic whites.

I also recommend the barbecued baby chicken, redolent of ginger, the pieces arrayed around a generous mound of pickled cucumber that’s been cut into long strips.

High marks, too, for the New Zealand lamb cutlets, which are really double chops with mint-infused chimichurri. If you’re a squash fan like me, don’t miss the curry-roasted butternut with goat cheese. Spectacular.

Limited storage keeps the wine list at 80 options, rotated among 300 wines on a master list. High-end wines such as Leeuwin Estate Chardonnay Art Series 2001 ($130) and Clarendon Hills Syrah Hickinbotham 2004 ($165) offer better value than the high markups on the lower end (sometimes four times retail). But you can sample a glass of this or that for around $12 and buy a bottle for less than $50.

I asked Liz about this. “It’s true, the bargains are on the high end,” she said. “I’m comfortable with the markup at the low end.

Most people come and want to try something new. They know Australian Shiraz or New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, but they don’t realize the regional differences and the less familiar wine types. Aussies come in and most of them know [the wines], but there’ll be conversation about what they should have with 75 percent of the people.”

Indeed, perceptive wine lovers can find Jansz Rosé NV ($44), a nice pink fizzer from Tasmania, or Innocent Bystander Sangiovese blend 2004 ($44) from Yarra Valley, or Mount Langi Cliff Edge Shiraz 2002 ($46) from Victoria.

“Where it’s possible, I highlight smaller producers, and regionality,” Liz added. That’s fine, but my experience with too many of the choices (especially among the New Zealand wines) is that better wines exist at similar prices.

Still, South delivers a happy, buzzy dining experience. The welcome and the food make you smile, and careful choices from the wine list can create a perfect meal.

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