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Lime lamb ribs with arugula and mint pesto

Solid Ground

by Jen Karetnick | Photo: Michael Pisarri | Miami magazine | April 23, 2013

Let’s just get this out of the way: You know that sprawling oak tree that is the centerpiece—and namesake—of Oak Tavern? It’s not indigenous to the site. A fountain used to stand in its place, outside the main dining room in the expansive courtyard. However signature it may be, like many of us in Miami, that tree is a transplant.

It’s also the perfect metaphor for chef-proprietor David Bracha, who also owns the River Seafood & Oyster Bar in Brickell, in place of what used to be his funky fish eatery, Fishbone Grille. No matter where they came from, both the oak and Bracha are stalwart residents of the region, determined to thrive in an environment that might seem hospitable one moment, hostile the next.

In fact, while you may not hear his name quite as often as that of other restaurateurs, Bracha has put as much time on the edgy Miami restaurant scene as Michael Schwartz, Michelle Bernstein and other peers. He worked at Mano and Stars & Stripes with Norman Van Aken, and opened the venerated 411 on South Beach before moving downtown to launch Fishbone. He also ran a second Fishbone Grille in Coral Gables and Jake’s Bar & Grill in South Miami before opening the River. Bracha has clearly been loyal to Miami, and the good karma is coming back to him—in acorns.

Oak Tavern, located where Piccadilly Garden and later Pacific Time’s second incarnation used to be, is one of those rare restaurants that can be all things to all people, during any season or time of day. Dishes range from mere mouthfuls—the deviled eggs topped with paddlefish roe are a delightful, savory snack—to more elaborate main courses such as a succulent, crisp-edged yellowtail snapper served with warm, nutty farro salad and a drizzle of light, herbal pistou, also known as Provençal pesto.

It’s hard to pin a nationality on the cuisine, given that dishes run the gamut from a pureed Marcona almond-infused gazpacho verde, made tangy with yogurt and refreshing with cucumber, to a cheeseburger formed from grass-fed beef and topped with artisan cheeses like Beecher’s cheddar or Rogue Cave Man blue. If anything, Spain and Italy dominate the menu; there are bacalao croquettes and authentic boquerones crostini, as well as a variety of crudos (the snapper with green olives and dill is delicate and delightful) and a handful of pizzas cooked to a bubbling crisp in the wood-burning oven. The exposed brick walls, treelike sculptures and a long, hewn-wood communal table also evoke the Old World. However, the buttermilk biscuits with maple-bacon butter that begin an evening meal, and the nightly specials like the every-Wednesday fried chicken, “will make you feel like you’re in the South,” our waiter told us. “Wait, we are in the South. OK, it’ll remind you that you’re in the South.”

More appropriate, perhaps, is to say that Oak Tavern displays a sensibility: The fare is united by its hand-crafted, attention-to-detail appeal. Almost everything is made on the premises, including house-cured maple bacon, just one option available on a platter of homemade charcuterie hanging visibly in a case in front of the open kitchen. Imports are limited to artisanal products, such as manchego from Spain and taleggio from Italy. One of my favorite things to do at Oak Tavern is to pop in for a light dinner of duck prosciutto, Tuscan fennel salami and Bell & the Bees goat cheese, which is plated with giant cerignola olives, lightly pickled vegetables, mustard pears and good, crusty bread.

If that option reminds you too much of an evening at home, feel free to move on to cooked fare. You can still enjoy the savory Surryano prosciutto, a play on Serrano given that it’s cured in Virginia, sliced thinly and wrapped around a pair of luscious scallops, then set upon a sheet of al dente lentils the size of baby fingernails. If you’re a fan of the duck prosciutto, savor it in a dish that combines fava beans, gemlike Sweet 100 cherry tomatoes and a poached egg, a combination that’s earthy and satisfying. As for the cheeses, they also show up in the salads, such as the feta paired with juicy heirloom tomatoes of varying hues, or the blue cheese that heightens a vinaigrette tossed into a simple nest of greens.

Heartier appetites no doubt appreciate that heftier dishes, such as suckling pig or mushroom-crusted New York strip, can be located under the A La Plancha section of the menu. Pastas also make an appearance, offering Italian countryside elements like wild boar sugo (sauce) with pappardelle, or rabbit sausage dotting gnocchi that’s been baked with Taleggio and black truffles. Less rich, but equally filling, is the seafood and chitarra (strings of pasta) steamed to tenderness in parchment.

Like the appetizers and entrées, desserts have no loyalty to any one region. Nor do they offer ingredients that are challenging to assimilate; the bacon here is in the butter, not the chocolate. There’s certainly something to be said for a dish of warm upside-down pineapple cake crowned with rum raisin ice cream. Peanut butter mousse with peanut-sea-salt brittle and goat cheese panna cotta with blueberry compote get the biggest nods from the hipsters who frequent the restaurant, but like hipsters, they can be ignored in favor of Gouda and Morbier for dessert.

Not much about Oak Tavern reminds me of Bracha’s other offspring, with the exception of two things: the selection of raw oysters that is available to begin a meal, and the thoughtfully curated list of wine that includes a Portuguese vinho verde, Austrian grüner veltliner, Chilean carmenere and Virginian petit verdot, all by the glass. Neither should be surprising. Bracha has always been known for his impeccable seafood sources, and his restaurants have always been the go-to place for barely marked-up bottles. Director of Operations and Beverage Director Michael Hidalgo, who also oversees River, is ensuring that these two traditions soldier on.

Were it located in Paris several decades ago, Oak Tavern might have been on Hemingway’s list of eateries where he could scratch out a story, slurp freshly shucked oysters and down glass after glass of steely vin blanc. It’s certainly on my list to do the same.

Oak Tavern
35 NE 40th St., Miami

Lunch: Mon.-Fri., 12-6pm
Happy hour and dinner: Mon.-Wed., 4:30-10:30pm; Thu.-Sat., 4:30pm-midnight; Sun., 4:30-9:30pm

Raw bar: $3-$65
Small plates: $6-$18
Wood-oven and grilled dishes: $12-$36
Charcuterie: $6-$22
Vegetables and sides: $4-$6

Shop, Shop
As you wait for your table to be ready, browse the racks at the clothing boutique next door, Anya Ponorovskaya, where outfits are designed by its owner. It stays open late.

Shelve the Louboutins
The dress code here is rather relaxed and casual, perfect for a quick post-work meal with colleagues or an impromptu “let’s go out for dinner” moment.

Don’t Worry, Be Happy
Happy hour begins promptly at 4:30pm... and Oak’s lemon-thyme vodka is worth leaving the office early for.

Call Ahead
Reservations are a must, especially on weekends when the place is packed. If you’re a spur-of-the-moment diner, make it an early dinner. For a memorable evening (and if you’re feeling gregarious), ask to sit in the communal table by the bar, where strangers fast become friends by the end of the evening.