On a brisk evening, a man with a thick Italian accent, suede wingtips, and a beige scarf attempts to lure passersby off a midtown Miami sidewalk. "Oysters, ladies," he coos to a group while gesturing to the more than half-dozen varieties of gnarled bivalves resting atop crushed ice.
Inside Midtown Oyster Bar, which opened this past November, you'll find tawny, shovel-shaped Moon Shoals perfectly salted by frigid ocean waves. They're delicate, creamy, and best enjoyed with a splash of tangy, rosy mignonette. Larger and more assertively briny Rocky Nooks rest on flatter shells. Still, the shuckers here preserve the few drops of savory oyster liquor.
Just beyond the raw bar lies a pale space reminiscent of a weathered seaside cottage. Stainless-steel high-tops are lined up against a wall covered with glittering wire baskets filled with spent oyster shells. Pale-yellow lights covered by cracked lobster crates add a final touch.
The decor here is obvious, just as it is at Midtown Oyster's sister place, Salumeria 104. There, it's a temple of house-made charcuterie and pasta where whole hog legs are suspended in midair. Both are owned by the Miami-based Graspa Group, which is also behind Spris, Tiramesu, and the now-shuttered Van Dyke Café.
This latest project was inspired by the eight years chef and co-owner Angelo Masarin spent in Hartford, Connecticut, before decamping to Miami to open Salumeria in December 2011. Masarin was born and trained in Treviso, north of Venice, and co-owner Carlo Donadoni is a Milan native. They took several trips through the Northeast earlier this year to develop and finalize the concept. "You can find restaurants [in Miami] that do fish and oysters, but from our point of view, the quality wasn't there," Masarin says.
The one-page paper menu at this 27-seater offers all the mandatory New England seafood classics and a handful of Mediterranean twists. Besides oysters, there are fish 'n' chips, clam chowder, and pots of steamed clams. There's also branzino culled from waters off Spain and Turkey and an Italian stew with Florida lobster in a saffron broth.
The oysters are followed by a half-dozen fried middleneck clams -- fat, golden brown, and resting atop their shells. They arrive lined up on a long, narrow plate. After a dip in beer batter and then hot oil, the shellfish dissolve into a luxurious custard akin to a savory, ocean-flavored cream puff.
Just as delightful is a side of inky Venere rice, whose black grains are grown in northern Italy by a friend of Masarin's. The chef prepares them in a luscious almost-pilaf style with a hearty vegetable stock and fruity extra-virgin olive oil replacing butter. The process yields firm yet supple bites that are intensely fragrant.
Far less impressive is the lobster roll. A few dried-out hunks of the sweet, translucent flesh come dressed with too much mayonnaise. The potato bun is cold and dense. A brief toasting would have added some crunch to balance this overly creamy, $24 mess.
A more complex monkfish dish is enticing on paper but unsuccessful in execution. The sturdy flesh wrapped around diced shrimp is pan-roasted far too long. What's left is a tough, chewy outer layer with a rubbery pellet at its core. The whole thing is wrapped in a thin veneer of eggplant that's undercooked and leathery. Fortunately, a rich red pepper sauce helps moisten the desiccated fish.
Even New England clam chowder, which seems hard to steer off course, is unspectacular. Meaty littleneck clams are snappy with hints of seawater, but there are only two in a bowl otherwise filled with a thin, milky, unsatisfying broth. The salty bacon matchsticks are a nice addition. So too are the kernels of roasted sweet corn. But for a chowder to be watery with such little substance is incomprehensible. It should be thick and satisfying, with some clam in almost every bite. Call it a cheat, but something as simple as a sprinkle of cornstarch to thicken it would have been a welcome improvement.
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Midtown Oyster Bar has opened amid a glut of similar restaurants. In recent months, Danny Serfer's Mignonette has joined favorites like David Bracha's the River Seafood & Oyster Bar and Andrew Carmellini's the Dutch. Competition is fierce, which should encourage everyone to show off beautiful products in the best way possible. Unfortunately, that's not the case here -- yet. They have the talent and know-how to fix the problems. If they can't, they're shucked.
- Various oysters $3.50 to $3.75
- Fried middleneck clams $14
- New England clam chowder $8.50
- Lobster roll $24
- Shrimp-stuffed monkfish $32
- Venere rice $7