The new Design District eatery Oak Tavern is as comfortable as a pair of hand-me-down jeans.
Worn brick walls enclose a cozy room lined with chocolate banquettes, rustic wood branded tables, low lighting and funky lamp bases made of tree trunks. The been-there-forever feel contrasts with the clean lines of the modern barrel lampshades and a communal table that can seat 20. But the best seats in the house are beneath the namesake tree where polka dots of shade make you feel like you are on a cool and breezy tropical vacation.
Brooklyn-born chef/owner David Bracha has been around a while — more than two decades of learning the quirks of South Florida diners. His River Oyster Bar has been a favorite of the Brickell set since it opened 10 years ago.
Here, the low-key veteran and his Hawaiian-born chef de cuisine, Curtis Rhodes, rifle the global pantry to turn out comfort-food fare including cheeseburgers, deviled eggs, oven-roasted meatballs, crispy pig’s ears and kale topped with smoked pimento fried egg, bronzino with Moroccan carrot salad and tasty little bahn mi. Housemade charcuterie and an ample raw bar that includes shellfish, ceviche and oysters every which way round out the something-for-everyone menu. On Thursday nights you can even sample a pho with a hearty broth and loads of fresh salad on top, including threads of young papaya, cilantro and scorching red bird’s eye chilies.
Bracha, who was one of the first Miami chefs to embrace the locavore movement, puts out plenty of farm-foraged beauties. And he knows how to treat them right. Our heirloom tomato salad, a stunning array of meaty, low-acid sun gold slices and the deep purply reds with hunks of tangy French sheep’s milk feta and a scattering of Kalamata olives could be a meal in itself.
Well, that is, if you indulge in the flaky buttermilk biscuits served with a pot of sweet-salty bacon-studded butter.
Likewise, local beets with a pile of perky arugula and airy, whipped goat cheese get an extra nutty dimension from a pistachio vinaigrette that adds punch but not too much to distract from the confetti of flavors on the plate. Octopus alla plancha is made up of a muscular tentacle beaten into tenderness, griddled and then served atop a homey chickpea salad.
Other starters worth sharing include smoldering-edged, wood-baked pizzas that are as thin as crackers but with a bendy chewiness that makes them hard to put down. Oysters in maple glaze are a bit oily, and I do wonder why they would serve three on a platter, but they are fresh and briny.
Main courses, or large plates, include some enticing renditions of dishes you may have seen before done here with a rustic precision. Yellowtail snapper, for example, gets a quick sear, leaving it with a skin as snappy as chicharrones and then is bathed in a lemon caper butter sauce with emerald green kale alongside and some hearty faro with a sprightly pesto.
Crispy roasted suckling pig is a petite version of a favorite that makes you feel as if you are at a Sunday feast. The juicy hunk of meat is cooked until it resembles the deep golden glow of a beach-addicted sun worshipper.
Sides like Parmesan-showered baby Brussels sprouts and hand-cut fries had me blocking my husband from sneak fork attacks, while charred broccoli with anchovy dressing felt like campfire food left too long.
Servers are incredibly professional, comfortable and competent though we had some errant orders find their way to our table and also watched some dishes get whisked away before we had finished.
Light and not overly sweet pumpkin cheesecake made with local calabaza squash is a perfect Miami winter indulgence served as a towering slice big enough to share with the table.
The chefs in the open kitchen are canning their own pickles, curing their own bacon and doing basically everything from scratch including cocktail ingredients.
Offering a robust international wine list, artisanal spirits, microbrews and freshly made juices and sodas, Bracha takes his bar program as seriously as his food.
It may seem like a mishmash of flavors here with inspiration springing from Sicily to Savannah and Hanoi to Harlem, but the results feel just like home.