Regis Philbin has returned to prime time. The Mets have once more found their way to first place. Joe Lieberman faces forced retirement back to private life. And The Oasis Restaurant is again dishing humble, healthy, mostly Mediterranean fare at its former storefront location in Miami Beach. All happy homecoming news except for the part about Regis.
When the original Oasis opened on Arthur Godfrey Road in 1997, it was a mid-Beach haven for solid, inexpensive eats in an unpretentious atmosphere. The good times lasted until 2003, when owner Sam Hakman decided he needed a break and closed up shop. Tinello Italian Restaurant took over the spot for a short interim, and when that operation folded, Hakman, a native of Israel, resurrected Oasis with the help of his son David.
The 48-seat room is more streamlined than before, the tall walls cleanly lined with a horizontal stripe of hammered copper and brightened with vibrantly colored, abstractly shaped sconces. A copper-topped illuminated bar in the back of the spare space showcases some fifteen beers, including stouts from England, classic Belgian ales, and microbrews from New York and Oregon. The wine selection is less impressive about half a dozen offerings from Argentina, Uruguay, and California. Plans are underway to expand the choices.
Diners begin with a basket of hard, hastily spiced pita chips, which I've always considered to be the bane of Middle Eastern eateries. Soon after, warm, fluffy whole-wheat pita wedges arrived alongside glistening dollops of hummus and baba ghannouj on a generously portioned platter of meze. Also crowded onto the plate were two neatly fried falafel patties, a pair of rice-stuffed grape leaves, a few niçoise olives, a petite cube of feta cheese, and chopped tomato-cucumber salad that, frankly, had seen better days. Tomatoes, cucumbers, olives, and feta cheese likewise graced a Greek salad, the heaping of field greens also dappled with red peppers and red onions. Homemade ginger-miso, garlic-Parmesan, and green goddess dressings were all infused with fresh, potent taste.
Sandwiches are composed of the same soft rounds of whole-wheat pita, but unfortunately these delicate circles crumble like cornbread on contact with, say, a hand. No complaints, however, about the pita's wholesome flavor in cahoots with a grilled turkey kefta burger assertively spiked with allspice. More cucumbers and tomatoes were stuffed in, too, the whole thing drizzled with garlic-hopped yogurt sauce. Chicken shwarma likewise hit the spot, but steak gyro didn't work out as well. The pita overwhelmed the thinly sliced, blandly seasoned beef, but worse, the meat was old in a sour, off-tasting way.
Sandwiches and salads are ideal for lunch at Oasis and can suffice as light main courses as well. Same goes for pizza, which comes with choice of six toppings. I wish they had not baked Parmesan into ours, because I don't care for that particular cheese on my pie. In addition, "Portobello and shiitake mushrooms" materialized as plain old buttons, and the sauce was too cloying. On the plus side, a crisp whole-wheat crust proved as gratifying as those made from white flour.
There is something too makeshift about Oasis's menu, and I'm not just referring to the ugly layout and text on a piece of plain paper although this is puzzling in an age when any computer can print out dazzling fonts and designs. Rather I speak of the indiscriminate nature of the cuisine. Nothing wrong with salmon with ginger and soy, or turkey-arugula meat loaf, or a quesadilla appetizer, per se, but restaurants are like politicians and home-plate umpires: Those with a consistent point of view are always preferable to those all over the map. Plus there is even less excuse to traipse through international cookbooks when the Mediterranean moniker offers such a tremendous breadth of options bruschetta to bouillabaisse, paella to pastitsio, tagliatelle to tagine.
The one Med offering, Moroccan chicken, supports my contention there should be more. Two skinny, juicy breasts came lightly grilled and smothered in a sweet, raisin-riddled "tomato-coriander chutney." The exact same "chutney," this time labeled "sun-dried tomato sauce," flowed over two slices of tender turkey meat loaf greened with dots of arugula baked inside. Entrées are nutritionally balanced by sides of steamy brown rice freckled with golden raisins, and a choice of garlic-sautéed spinach or black beans. The meals may not be in sync geographically, but they are connected by the theme of healthful eating.
Save room for dessert. Special offerings change daily because items are prepared freshly in-house by David's wife Yerling, and Mediterranean-shmediterranean, they are pretty good. On one evening, a peach cake was proffered after just having popped from the oven, and another visit brought a blueberry pie with light, flaky crust but canned filling. A signature, especially creamy crme brùlée rice pudding is available all the time, and though the soggy cap of caramelized sugar didn't contribute much, ripe and juicy embedded raspberries provided electric bursts of sweetness.
There are service kinks aplenty to be worked out. Main courses were brought in the midst of appetizers. The check was plunked down on the table while we were still busy with dessert. And when a salmon entrée arrived at the table instead of turkey meat loaf, our waiter first insisted we had ordered the fish and then tried to convince us to keep it. Oasis's crew is congenial, though, and service was otherwise competent enough for this genre of restaurant the affordably priced, friendly neighborhood joint genre, that is.
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