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.

(continued ...)

One of the best things I've had from this corner of the menu is a dish of warm fava beans, piled in a happy tumble along with plump golden tomatoes, a poached egg, slivers of duck prosciutto, and shards of pecorino cheese. I particularly enjoy that the dish is focused around the vegetable, not the protein, with the other components the complementary players. Vegetables are a strong suit here, including also a side dish of wood grilled leeks with romesco sauce, inspired by the Catalan calçotada, and a salad of roasted beets paired with creamy goat cheese and pistachio vinaigrette.

My luck has been more mixed with the raw seafood items - a surprise given Bracha's track record at the River. I enjoyed the tuna poke, the cubes of ahi tuna tossed with slivered onions and seaweed, and dressed with soy, sesame oil, chiles and sesame seeds (probably relevant here: Oak Tavern's chef de cuisine, Curtis Rhodes, hales from Oahu). But the Peruvian style cobia ceviche was bland and monotonous, with the fish cut into unwieldy, large chunks, too big to allow much of the citrus and chile marinade to infuse its goodness.

Cooked seafood items have fared much better. Bracha has a deft hand with scallops, evidenced by a dish of Surryano-ham enrobed, perfectly seared sea scalllops served over a bed of tender,earthy lentils with a spiky tiara of crispy leeks. Grilled octopus is served simply, with a Mediterranean-spiced chickpea salad perked up with ringlets of banana peppers.

Even after a few visits, I've still not made my way to several other intriguing choices, including lamb ribs served with Greek yogurt and an arugula-mint pesto, or a grass-fed ribeye with tomatoes, kale and chimichurri. I've also only made a small dent in the selection of pastas and pizzas. Of these, the best has been the black spaghetti served with a boatload of crab meat and a more moderate dose of sea urchin roe - though it would have been far better had the pasta not been overcooked. Pappardelle with meatballs and ricotta was unexceptional and seemed somewhat out of place, while baked gnocchi with rabbit sausage were dense to start, and then smothered with a too-heavy blanket of taleggio cheese. (The pizzas I've still not sampled).

Desserts are simple but satisfying. I usually don't get excited over cake, but have a soft spot for pineapple upside down cake, and Oak Tavern's is a really good, moist, dense version, topped with a scoop of rum raisin ice cream. The passion fruit panna cotta may not have had a perfectly burnished, crystalline sugar crust, but it made up for that with a delicious infusion of tropical fruit flavor in the custard.

Keeping with the "Tavern" in its name, there are many good things to drink here. Typically at least a half dozen beers are available on tap, ranging from Due South IPA to Brooklyn Brown Ale to Left Hand Milk Stout, plus nearly two dozen more in bottle or can, primarily craft brews. Wine selections are equally thoughtful, with a healthy focus on more exotic food-friendly varietals and some very reasonably priced hidden gems. (I'll give away just one here: the Copain "Tous Ensemble" Rosé for $42 is a "buy.") An average price point around $50 is also a very welcome sight.

Despite the huge success of Michael's Genuine, and the massive migration of businesses and development in the Design District recently, few other restaurants have succeeded there.[2] I hope that changes with Oak Tavern.

Oak Tavern
35 NE 40th St. Miami FL

Oak Tavern on Urbanspoon

[1] For an interesting snapshot of the time, here's a 1991 piece in the Sun Sentinel, "Florida Fare."

[2] The names of the deceased: South Street, Sra. Martinez, Domo Japones, Fratelli Lyon, Andalus (had to look it up), Pacific Time, PizzaVolante, Fin, Q, Mai Tardi, Brosia, Vino e Olio - and I suspect I'm missing some.

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