For my first excursion, I invited my favorite day-drinking pal to accompany me for brunch. We agreed to meet at South around 11 a.m. She arrived first and put her name on the 30-minute waitlist. When I got there, there were no spots in the lot near the front door so I parked on the other side of the shopping center near a snowboard shop. I expected to find my friend in the waiting area, but she had already been seated, cutting the estimated wait time to just five minutes.
I crossed through the dining room, full of sleek modern furniture and holiday décor, and joined her in a window-seat booth with a view of the snow-covered patio and outdoor fire pit. As I got comfortable, I took in all the smaller touches: the recycled glass bottle used as a carafe sitting on a small blue-and-white patterned saucer, the two forks and a spoon nestled in a blue-and-white striped torchon.
Torchon is a fancy word to describe a style of napkin similar to a tea towel. They have become increasingly popular as table accessories because they are large, lint free, extremely absorbent and add a rustic touch to a tablescape. The presence of these napkins signaled an effort to be both casual and trendy.
We started with coffee and cocktails; a bloody Mary ($9) and a Mediterranean gin and tonic ($12.50). Plus, an order of the pull-apart monkey bread ($3) to tide us over while we decided on breakfast.
Our server arrived with our drinks - and a show. By pouring the tonic down the threads of a bar spoon, she layered the flavors of the gin and tonic with the lemon peel, a lime wheel, orange zest and juniper berries in the glass.
This vastly differs from the simple crisp British version of the cocktail, but that's because at South the gin and tonics are served Barcelona-style. In Spain people are fanatics for gin, cutting the summer heat with the crisp, refreshing beverage. In 2013, GQ reported that there were 3.2 million cases of gin drunk per year. All that gin is matched with small-batch tonics and a medley of citrus, herbs and spices to accentuate the flavors of both.
But if you can't spring for that Condor flight to Spain, you can migrate to South.
For the main course, I went with the croque madame ($15) and my friend chose huevos divorciados ($14). South's croque madame is served open-faced on brioche bread, with thinly sliced Black Forest ham, grilled asparagus and caramelized leek, covered in a Gruyere white sauce and topped with an over-medium egg. Don't worry; this artery-clogger is served with a side arugula salad. It was creamy and cheesy and all the flavors did a happy dance in my mouth. My only wish was that the egg would have been over-easy so that all that yolk could have mixed in with the Gruyere and created a brunch utopia on my plate.
The heuvos divorciados is another sleep-in-late, eat-a-big-meal food. Corn tortillas, Spanish rice, black beans, and pico di gallo are piled in two opposing mountains. Each mound is topped with an over-medium egg and has its own sauce: ranchero sauce versus salsa verde. Add cotija cheese, sour cream, avocado and you can choose which is better. We both liked the verde, but with some hot sauce and a tiny bit of salt the ranchero made it an interesting fight.
The monkey bread we ordered never came during the meal, but our server packed it up for us to take with us. I left full and ready to take on the rest of my holiday shopping.
After my first visit, I decided I would go early for dinner to beat the crowds. However, when we got there at 5:45 on a Wednesday, there was a 30- to 40-minute wait. We battled our way to the bar to grab a drink, luckily when we got there a couple scooched down and gave us some seats.
My partner got a beer ($6) and I decided to try a different gin cocktail, since the server from brunch said gin was their specialty. Now, you should know that I don't get paid to drink. But I do eat and drink as if I would when I wasn't writing about it. So I ordered their holiday gin and tonic, an off-menu suggestion from the bartender.
I should have known better when she said the gin was top-shelf from Scotland, or when she said, "cucumber and orange rose, with syrup and pink peppercorns." Alas, I was still surprised when we settled up our tab to head to our table and saw the $16 price tag.
With another flourish, the bubbly portion of the drink was poured down a bar spoon in front of us, and given the preparation and the $11 price for one shot of Caorunn gin, a small-batch artisan spirit made from foraged botanicals, the price is understandable. It's not something I'd order all the time-what am I, the Queen of France?-but it was damn delicious.
The hostess led us to a different booth with a window seat, again with a view of the fire burning in the fire pit on the patio. We were overwhelmed with the menu options, especially since there were two sides of the menu: amuse and dinner. Pro tip: If you are able to score a seat in the bar, you can order from either of these menus, and save yourself the wait.
The server explained the options and answered our questions honestly as if talking to an old friend. With his advice we ordered a main dish from the dinner menu, spaghetti vino e verdure ($16), and several dishes from the amuse side, a charcuterie board to share ($16), chorizo and caramelized onion dip ($8), and tuna crudo ($8).
The items from the amuse menu came out first, with plenty of bread. The dip was made with pepper jack cheese and was creamy without being heavy. Full of developed spice flavors with just a hint of heat, by the end of the meal we cleaned the bowl.
The ahi was served in a sauce of soy, citrus, and a sweet and spicy sauce served with cucumber. It had a bit of a kick, so I'd steer clear if you're not a fan of heat. The tuna was quality, so there were probably only eight smallish pieces. It tasted fresh, bright and the sweetness cured the spiciness from the pepper.
The charcuterie board was loaded with quality meats, cheeses, grapes and nuts. What really caught my attention were the house-made pickled veggies.
Before we could finish all of that, the pasta arrived. South utilizes fresh spaghetti from the Alaska Pasta Company. It was cooked perfectly, but know that it is not your typical pasta. It's thicker and has a different consistency. All the ingredients came together wonderfully: asparagus, fennel, tomato, basil pesto, feta, shaved parmesan and white wine sauce.
We didn't save room for dessert, but as I finished my $16 cocktail the fire outside complemented my own glow.
Everything about South oozes their tagline: casual highbrow dining. Nothing is a coincidence; not the tiny mason jars they serve the pickled veggies in, not the chic and trendy napkin choice. Or if it is, they have one hell of a happy accident.
I'm on board. My only complaint is that everyone is, too. Excuse me; I better put my name on the list so I can get a table next week.
Published in the Anchorage Press on December 25, 2015.