The white tablecloths and wall-mounted stag heads are gone, but refined service and impeccable classics remain at the refreshed Cypress Tavern.
Cypress may have loosened up its man bun since a do-over last year — transforming from a formal “room” to a more relaxed “tavern” — but going casual here is like Jeeves and Wooster donning their country tweeds.
Proper timing of dishes, table service between courses and a sharp wait staff fitted in natty vests keep it classy. James Beard award-winning chef and restaurateur Michael Schwartz has resisted the small-plates-under-Edison-bulbs craze to preserve the good bones that made Cypress a refreshing anomaly in Miami’s laid-back, trendy restaurant scene.
Despite the pink toile wallpaper, dainty mismatched floral china and a duo of chandeliers overhead, the small valet box of a restaurant exudes masculinity inside its sturdy, cypress-covered walls. Some of the old, heavier (and pricier) dishes — braised antelope and bone marrow — are out, but handsome displays of perfectly wood-grilled porterhouse and leg of lamb are fired up to vanquish sturdy appetites. Even the romaine salad gets grill treatment. Painted with lemon-anchovy vinaigrette, the charred hearts come warm on the plate, smothered in Parmesan shavings with toasted croutons for crunch.
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Early dining hours are mellow, with Van Morrison and Amy Winehouse crooning overhead on weeknights. Late weekend dinners are more harried and loud. Old blues tunes and boisterous conversations almost overwhelmed the small space on one of our visits.
Cypress Tavern still faces some of the obstacles that challenged the dinner-only Room, despite earning a 3.5-star review after opening in spring 2013. It’s in a tough location. Next to a highway overpass in a gritty section of the Design District that grows isolated at night, there is little foot traffic. To juice up the neighborhood, Cypress Tavern now offers brunch on the weekends, with live jazz on Saturdays. A 6 p.m.-8 p.m. summer happy hour with a new snack menu of mini-burgers and shrimp fritters was recently introduced to showcase handcrafted cocktails.
For those up for the adventure, there is reward inside the warm glow of the tiny tavern. Schwartz and Genuine Hospitality Group executive chef Bradley Herron have massaged the menu to raise the comfort level, with more accessible prices and brasserie-style food, expertly executed by chef de cuisine Max Makowski (Michael’s Genuine).
A complimentary Zak The Baker warm, sourdough baguette welcomes with a soft scoop of aromatic smoked sea salt butter. Cypress’ stellar beet salad has been simplified into bright chunks and shavings of roasted yellow and red beets jazzed with pickled pearl onions, oranges, sherry vinaigrette and aged goat cheese. The French bistro classic, leeks vinaigrette, is delicate and earthy, grounded by blue cheese and walnuts.
The eight appetizers span from light — chilled raw oysters on the half shell, which snap to attention under sharp, peppery mignonette sauce — to the big fat flavor of crispy duck confit, served with lentils and bitter greens.
The dazzler out of the starting gate is the wood-grilled giant prawn, smoky and split open, with splashes of herb garlic butter and grilled lemon sweetening the brine.
Of eight straightforward entrees that include Cypress’ onion-marmalade-dressed burger, pasta, short rib, pork chop and a pan-roasted half chicken, the classic fish meunière is a light, tantalizing choice. It features fresh market fish (ours was red snapper) lightly dusted with flour and sautéed in butter until golden, with a subtle kick of lemon, parsley and capers. Delicately crisp on the outside and moist and flavorful inside, the dish comes with whipped potato and wilted greens. The buttery, grilled asparagus we chose as a side dish was thick and perfectly firm.
Steak-frites takes a pleasant spin with herb-rich salsa verde breathing life into the juicy, 12-ounce hanger steak, charred on the outside and soft and creamy inside, just like the thrice-cooked fries that accompany it.
Three large plates — a daily rotisserie, wood-grilled local whole fish and a 32-ounce, dry-aged porterhouse steak — are for group sharing. Our rotisserie leg of lamb, with fresh rosemary, a roasted garlic head and salsa verde, was pre-cut and fanned across a thick chopping block. It easily could have fed four of us, but a chewy interior made it difficult to cut, even with the sharp knives delivered to our table.
Creamy, cheesy leeks gratin, toasted brown on top and drizzled with even more salsa verde — is there a green theme here? — was a warm, rewarding distraction.
The porterhouse, accompanied by small crocks of bordelaise and béarnaise sauces and whipped potatoes, was expertly fired to order and fed two.
Behind every solid chef de cuisine is a talented pastry chef, and Makowski happens to be married to a darn good one. MJ Garcia spends her time at Schwartz’s other Design District landmark, Michael’s Genuine, but she has coached her husband on three stand-up desserts. Along with ice cream and sorbets in metal-legged bowls, a rich chocolate pot de crème, served with soft toasted brioche cubes on the side, is a lovely end note. A luxurious espresso semifreddo is crunched up with caraway rye crumble and crushed hazelnuts, with caramel sauce spun like a web throughout.
Even if you don’t succumb to the sweets, sinfully dark chocolate truffles are delivered with the bill as a final perk.
If you’re looking for surprises and creative experiments, this is not your place. But, like a reliable friend, Cypress Tavern can be counted on to deliver traditional dishes with expertise and outstanding service. At the end of a long day, everybody needs a friend like that.
Miami Herald critics dine anonymously at the newspaper’s expense. Follow Jodi Mailander Farrell on Twitter: @JodiMailander.
If You Go
Place: Cypress Tavern
Address: 3620 N.E. Second Ave, Miami (Design District)
Rating: 3 ½ stars (Excellent)
Contact: 305-520-5197, cypresstavern.com
Hours: 6 p.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday and Sunday, until midnight Friday and Saturday; weekend brunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; closed Monday
Prices: $12-$18 appetizers, $21-$69 entrees, $10-$12 desserts
FYI: VS, MC, AmEx; full bar; valet $5 in parking lot next door.