Sunday, April 28, 2013

Oak Tavern - Miami Design District

Turns out, I'd been stalking Chef David Bracha for decades without knowing it.

Go back about twenty years, and a couple of my favorite restaurants were Norman Van Aken's A Mano in the Betsy Hotel on South Beach, and his more casual Stars & Stripes Café in the same property.[1] A few years later, a romantic little spot opened up in the Harrison Hotel on Washington Avenue, called "411." (Remember when using the address number was the big trend in restaurant names? What was everyone thinking?) We loved 411, which felt like an elegant, secret hideaway, but it didn't last very long.

Not long after 411 closed, I remember eating at Fishbone Grill, a casual seafood place next to Tobacco Road on Miami Avenue. There was a dish there - crabcakes served with a cherry and apple slaw, and a smoked almond tartar sauce - that was identical to one of my favorite dishes at 411. "They copied the dish!" I thought.

Well, you've probably figured out what it took me several more years to deduce: it was all the same guy, Bracha - who helped Van Aken open A Mano, then went out on his own with 411, and later opened Fishbone Grill, which later made way for the very popular River Oyster Bar at the same spot. And indeed, you can still find that same crabcake dish on the menu at the River.

More recently, Bracha opened Oak Tavern in the Design District, in one of those spots that's seen a procession of restaurants come and go - the old Piccadilly Garden, then the reincarnated Pacific Time, most recently a Spanish place whose name I've already forgotten (probably because the food was equally unmemorable). Bracha's made the venue more inviting than its prior incarnations. A huge live oak tree is now the centerpiece for the outdoor courtyard, which is a comfortable, placid place to dine when temperatures permit. Inside, a long communal table divides the bar from the dining room; a rough stone wall along the back, lined with leather banquettes, as well as four tall lamps clustered in the center of the dining room like a stand of trees, provide some visual relief from the low-slung, box-like feel of the space.

(You can see all my pictures in this Oak Tavern flickr set).

Where the River is primarily a seafood place, Oak Tavern is more omnivorous in its approach. Though the oyster selection is not as varied as at the River, there are usually at least a few varieties on offer, plus about a half dozen other various crudos and ceviches. There are about an equal number of charcuterie choices, including occasional house-made items (I'm disappointed that the coppa di testa I tried on my first visit hasn't resurfaced since). Like Design District neighbor Michael's Genuine, small plates are a big focus. But any number of larger dishes from land and sea are available too, as well as several pizzas from a wood-burning oven, and a few pastas as well. It's a long, and fairly ambitious menu. So where are the highlights?

I've yet to go astray among the small plates. The crostini in particular have been consistently great. Picked stone crab over a shmear of avocado is bright and fresh, while boquerones with roasted peppers, kale and ricotta provide a more pronounced taste of the ocean. Bacon "marmalade" spread over some Rogue Creamery Caveman blue cheese offers a great interplay of salty, sweet, meaty, funky and creamy.

Some of my other favorites among the "small plate" options have included a verdant, spicy gazpacho verde, creamy deviled eggs topped with paddlefish caviar, and silky foie gras mousse with a crown of fresh strawberry jam. "Banh Mi" sliders stuffed with pork belly, more of that foie gras mousse, and pickled vegetables are a carryover from the River's bar menu, and a worthy one at that.

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Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Cobaya Makoto

Makoto, in Bal Harbour, is one of my three favorite places in town for sushi. But when we decided to do a Cobaya dinner with Chef Makoto Okuwa, the guy whose name is on the door, we knew it would be impossible to do sushi properly for that many people at once. We gave Chef Makoto the usual pitch - serve what you really want to make, do something off-menu, don't be afraid to be adventurous - and left it to him to decide how best to put together a dinner for 25 people.

What he came up with was one of the most intriguing and unusual menus we've seen at one of these events, combining outstanding ingredients, some stunning presentations, and a good dose of diner interactivity.

(You can see all my pictures from the dinner in this Cobaya Makoto flickr set).

To start, something I'm pretty sure none of us had ever tried before: a turtle headcheese. "Nikogori"[1] apparently refers to dishes - often seafood, but sometimes meats or vegetables - bound in aspic. This dish - which Chef Makoto said he'd never made before - used turtle meat, rolled and bound in its own gelatin, then chilled and sliced thinly. Reminiscent of pickled tongue, curiously enough, with just a hint of the marine flavor you would expect of an amphibious creature, I thought this was great. The accompaniments were equally unusual but worked: pickled mustard seeds, crispy kale leaves, a purée of smoked eggplant that called to mind baba ghanoush, a drizzle of molasses.

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Friday, April 5, 2013

podBrunch v4.0

The gleaming chrome of the gastroPod's Airstream trailer is always a promising sight - even more so when it's pulled up in front of GAB Studio in Wynwood. Good things have happened here with the Pod - a Cobaya dinner with Alex Talbot of Ideas in Food, and a P.I.G.-fest among them.

This time around, it was Chef Jeremiah Bullfrog's version of Sunday brunch, his fourth such "podBrunch." Eggs were broken, but fortunately nobody had to break out their emergency kicks.

(You can see all my pictures in this podBrunch 2013 flickr set.)

A somewhat deceptively simple salad started things off. Just a few ingredients: asparagus, onion, and a lemony vinaigrette, but with a layering of textures and forms. The asparagus appeared both as thinly shaved stalks and delicate pickled tips.Sprigs of fresh spring onion were mixed with thin, crispy golden dried onion (onion "katsuobushi," as Jeremiah called it). A synesthete would say this tasted like "green" - really fresh, clean flavors.

The Korean "jeon" is essentially a savory pancake that will often include kimchi. So a kimchi waffle is really not all that far-fetched. But to pair it up with a slow-poached duck egg, and then drizzle it all with a rich, but not overly sweet, cane syrup butter, was a particularly clever way to tie it back to a more traditional brunch theme.

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