Only Mind the Mollusks
It has become apparent in recent months that Miami restaurants are finally catching on to certain dining trends that have long been established elsewhere around the country -- like, for instance, an emphasis on letting foods speak for themselves in clean and sensible fashion. David Bracha, chef/owner of the new River Oyster Bar, appears to be heading in the opposite direction. As the former chef of Fishbone Grille, the popular downtown seafood joint that once occupied this space, Bracha offered up a wide array of fresh fish grilled, fried, blackened, and so on; he left the fancy stuff for daily specials. Here the menu is filled with fish dishes topped by frizzled leeks, fried noodles, and all manner of garnishings that architecturally heighten the plates, but pack about as much gastronomic punch as a bag of potato chips.
All but the most fanatic of Fishbone fans will acknowledge that the earth-toned River Oyster Bar is a prettier spot to dine, its hip-downtown ambiance replacing the formerly friendly, funky neighborhood one. A centrally located bar is the focal point, the room to the bar's left the preferable place to sit, containing as it does most of the seating and a glassed-in kitchen for visual stimulation. The smaller dining room is more or less like the old Fishbone with a paint job and new artwork. Although the River Oyster Bar is sleekly contemporary, its vinyl tablecloths and informal service keep it in the same realm of neighborhood restaurants as its predecessor -- just a prettier one with less bohemian charm, a smaller selection of fish, and a dash more pretension.
That might be an acceptable trade-off if the food and service were as improved as the décor, but, sadly, this is not the case. The first trade-down: In place of Fishbone's signature cornbread are slices of baguette served with butter and hummus. As food fads don't carry expiration dates it's difficult to pinpoint exactly when hummus as predinner bread spread became passé, but I'd venture to guess it was sometime in the mid-to-late Nineties.
Some starters are stuck in the same time warp, though prepared with enough aplomb to get by. Spring rolls of soft white rice paper wrapped around mostly somen noodles were paired with a pickled medley of cucumbers, peppers, carrots, and onions on the side, along with nuoc cham dipping sauce. Mini cylinders of crabcake, splashed with citrus reduction and squirted with chipotle aioli, were appropriately small in size for a starter, but the $12 price seemed high considering their pleasant taste derived as much from a savorily seasoned filling as from any abundance of crab. There wasn't much bacon to be seen in the "Apalachicola oysters casino" either, nor much seasoning to taste in the bland breading. The Florida oysters, though, were inarguably plump and juicy.
Not surprisingly the best thing about River Oyster Bar is its oyster bar. It's a great one, seriously thoroughbred mollusks imported from all over the country -- briny oysters from the algae-rich waters of Oregon's Yaquina Bay, salty-sweet Washington State Fanny Bays, crisp Atlantic Malpeques, petite California Kumamotos, and the aforementioned fat Apalachicolas, which at $10 per dozen are half the price of the others. All come with a trio of dipping sauces: cocktail, mignonette, and jalapeño relish.
What did surprise is that our favorite entrée was not seafood, but a bone-in breast of jerked Ashley Farms chicken, sweetly caramelized piquant skin wrapping in wonderfully wet white meat, accompanied by a vinegared jicama-carrot slaw and sensational smoked chili and cheddar cheese grits.
A seared fillet of Australian barramundi came flesh side darkly crusted, skin side crisped, and the soft meat between succulently cooked. At this point they could have added a light sauce or squeezed some lemon juice on top and called it a day, but instead dressed the fish with wedges of ripe tomatoes, barely ripe avocados, and crunchy strips of garlic-drenched yuca nested on top. These garnishes didn't obfuscate the barramundi's naturally rich, meaty taste, but neither did they enhance it. Nor did a beehive of fried leeks and vinegary dice of tomatoes and cucumbers ("salsa cruda") contribute much to a spicy cumin and chili-spiked salmon, which was amply accompanied by a deliciously smoky hash of yuca and chorizo.
Both barramundi and salmon were unquestionably fresh and properly cooked, but a rectangle of mildly blackened tuna, the main component of a "roll your own tuna taco," arrived in a medium state as opposed to "the rare side of medium rare" as ordered. Steamy hot corn tortillas were fine, even if there were only four to go with five slices of fish, and I suppose guacamole and more of the vinegary salsa cruda made apt taco fixings, but is jack cheese the best thing they could find for a third garnish? I bet even Señor Frog's could come up with more pizzazz -- or, at least, a more compelling cheese.
Desserts are of the homespun, easy-to-make variety, meaning you don't need a sugar thermometer, or even the ability to make crust, to put together an ice cream sundae with macadamia nuts or strawberries with whipped cream. We sampled two of the more "complex" creations -- chocolate-cherry bread pudding and a peach, blackberry, and walnut crisp, both meeting standard requirements of a satisfying dessert -- fresh and warm, sweet and tasty.
On one visit service was neglectful -- dishes and crumbs left on the table, bottles of wine not poured, an after-dinner coffee taking twenty minutes to arrive -- by which point we had given up and were ready for the check. Part of the problem may have stemmed from a large group holding a party. Their slide presentation also blocked the restroom entrance, leading a waiter to tell a member of our party "to try the bathroom next door at Tobacco Road" -- not something you expect to hear when paying at least $40 for dinner. On another, less hectic evening, service was more attentive, but our table still wasn't cleaned between dinner and dessert.
Attempting to make raw oysters, hummus, and fried yuca chips work cohesively on the same menu is like trying to form New Orleans, Egypt, and Cuba into one unified country. I'm not saying it can't be accomplished, but why try? I'll stick to the River Oyster Bar for a revitalizing after-work pick-me-up of chilled oysters and cold beer -- an unbeatable combination for a sultry South Florida evening.
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