Monday, March 25, 2013

CobayOak Tavern with Chef David Bracha

I will save the long-form version of the story for another time, but the short-form version is this: I've been eating Chef David Bracha's food for a long time, going back to the early 1990's when he was cooking at Norman Van Aken's Stars & Stripes Café in the Betsy Hotel on South Beach. Since then, he's gone on to great success at the perennially packed River Oyster Bar downtown, and recently opened up Oak Tavern in the Design District.


So I was excited for the opportunity to get caught up on his cooking at a Cobaya dinner earlier this month for our palindromic Cobaya #31 on 3.11.13. The menu he assembled for us 35 guinea pigs was a more adventurous take on the offerings at his new restaurant - ingredient-driven, with bold flavors and something of an offal-centric tilt.

(You can see all the pictures from our dinner in this CobayOak Tavern flickr set.)


There is no better oyster bar in Miami than the River, and so I was not surprised that's the item with which our dinner started. Here, they had been shucked into a ceviche which combined the tart citric bite of lemon juice with a sinus-clearing jolt of horseradish cream, rounded out with soft herbs and a scattering of paddlefish roe.


Bracha probably is really tired of crabcakes: he's had them on the menus of his various restaurants for the past twenty years. But I'm not, and I'd never had this particular version of his, no-filler, pan-seared, crisp-edged, nestled in a puddle of uni butter.

(continued ...)


If I'm going to be honest, I'll confess I could have passed on the beet and heirloom tomato salad. Not that it wasn't a good salad - it was, with the juicy sweetness of local tomatoes playing against the earthy sweetness of the beets, all layered over some creamy goat cheese studded with pistachios - only that it's the type of thing that could easily be found elsewhere (or on the regular menu at Oak Tavern, for that matter).


But it was more than made up for by the next course - a couple of rabbit polpettini in a parmesan brodo that, in some bizarre but perfect way, was uncannily reminiscent of a great matzo ball soup. The rabbit meatballs had that same balance between substantiality and tenderness that characterizes a great matzo ball, and the brodo - a rich chicken broth given an extra umami boost with the parmesan cheese, and flecked with dill - was like Jewish chicken soup squared. It's a strange comparison to draw but one that immediately resonated with several diners, and is intended as a high compliment.[1]


When I was last in Chicago, we had lunch at a great little place called the Purple Pig, where one of their best-known items is a dish of crispy kale, fried pig's ears, pickled cherry peppers and a fried egg, all served in a big round pig-shaped bowl (you can see a recipe here). Bracha's next dish offered a similar combination - sheets of crisped kale leaves, twirls of fried pig's ears, and a runny, brown-edged fried Lake Meadows Farm egg, all given a generous sprinkle of one of my favorite flavors, smoked Spanish pimentón.


Rivaling the rabbit polpettini for my favorite course of the night was Bracha's sweetbread dish - a delicate crust on the edge of the sweetbreads, a delightful sweet-sour garnish of bacon "jam," orange and fennel draped over the top. The mildness of the sweetbreads was a good foil for these bright strong flavors.


Similarly bold flavors, with a Middle Eastern bent, were featured in the next dish, a tranche of sumac-spiced seared lamb liver served over an eggplant purée, with a scatter of spiced red onions. This dish resonated with liver and onion fans - though others may have found it a bit challenging.


For a final savory course, Chef Bracha did a take on surf 'n' turf - a plump, perfectly seared sea scallop, served on a bed of a spicy beef cheek ragu. For many at the table, this was one of the favorites of the night.


Chef Bracha kept things simple for dessert - an assortment of chocolate truffles, which we were fortunate to be able to pair with a pour of Casa Dragones joven 100% blue agave tequila. This clear "sipping tequila" was surprisingly smooth and refined.

While a menu of pig ears and rabbit and sweetbreads and liver is right in the sweet spot for a Cobaya dinner,  it's also not a far cry from what's regularly available at Oak Tavern, where rabbit pate, foie gras mousse, and roasted marrow bones are regular features. Many thanks to Chef Bracha for giving us a taste, to all of his crew at Oak Tavern for their hospitality throughout the evening, to the Casa Dragones rep for the generous sample, and - as always - most of all to the guinea pigs whose continuing support makes these events possible.

Oak Tavern
35 N.E. 40th Street, Miami
786.391.1818

[1] Perhaps coincidence, perhaps not: the week after our dinner, Bracha was featured in a Miami Herald piece on Passover meal, talking about - matzo ball soup.


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