Miami has an abundance of neighborhoods and restaurants, but it doesn't have a whole lot of neighborhood restaurants. At least not in the true sense, meaning an establishment where prices are affordable enough, the ambiance low-key enough, and the food approachable enough to draw locals on a semiregular basis. Where the barstools are occupied by an energetic crowd of said locals meeting after work, if only for bar snacks and cocktails. Where everybody doesn't know your name, but you're treated as if they do. A place like the River Seafood & Oyster Bar.
The River opened downtown in 2003, but because of the wear-and-tear of constant business, it looks as though it's always been there. A long row of French patio doors facing South Miami Avenue fronts the exterior; a curved bar running parallel to the windows centers the interior, with dining sections on each side. The room to the left is larger and airier, but the whole arena is welcoming in a downtown-urban — and neighborly — way.
Fresh oysters are lined up in a bin of ice along the mahogany-and-slate bar, but much of the jam-packed action up front seems to be effusively booze-oriented. Numerous house cocktails ($9 to $11) are proffered, along with craft beers on tap for $6 ($3 during happy hour), domestic and imported bottled brews ($5 to $8), and an eclectic, well-priced wine list of some 250 labels, many of which you won't see elsewhere in town.
The oyster selection changes but usually includes eight to ten types, from the familiar Wellfleet and Blue Points to West Coast specimens such as Little Skookum from Puget Sound or Mirada from South Hood Canal. Many connoisseurs consider the "ber" months (September through December) the only time to indulge.
Patrons clustered about the bar are just as likely to select from a posted snacks menu as they are to quaff oysters. The only problem with these eclectic global bar snacks is that each one sounds more alluring than the next. Still, hard choices had to be made, so we put off Sicilian meatball sliders, short-rib tacos, bacalao croquettes with saffron aioli, and steamed pork buns with kimchi cucumber for another visit. Instead we dug into a trio of mini oyster po'boy sandwiches; a six-pack of succulent baby littleneck clams casino dabbed with herb butter and capped with a snippet of bacon; a delectable little curried duck empanada atop mango chutney; and a lightly toasted lobster roll brimming with big, moist chunks of the Maine crustacean. The last goes for $15, but the rest are great bites for $6 and under.
Bar snacks are for the bar; the regular menu has its own "small plates" section. It's a little more traditional — onion soup au gratin, shrimp cocktail, mussels steamed Thai-style, crabcakes, and such — but still boasts bright highlights. The crabcakes, for instance, are chaperoned by tart cherry-apple slaw and smoked almond tartare ($18). Most of these starters run from $7 to $12.
Raw bar selections extend beyond oysters. Peruvian ceviche translates to a traditional maceration of sea bass, sweet potato, choclos, red onions, lime juice, and cilantro. Caicos conch salad is a ceviche-like toss too, a small dice of shellfish soaked in sour orange juice, perked with red peppers, and barely scorched by Scotch bonnet peppers for a pesky bite. Snapper tartare is delicately minced to a near-purée, lightly touched with yuzu, and crowned with wasabi tobiko. Won ton chips alongside were useful for scooping up the fish, but the heavy fried nature contradicted the cool, refreshing tang of the tartare.
Chef/owner David Bracha has been the River's constant. This venture was his followup to partnership of two popular Fishbone Grille restaurants in the '90s — one of which was on the site of the present-day River.
Our original review of the River in 2003 bemoaned a tendency to overload fish with too many distracting ingredients that masked rather than magnified the freshness of product. This still rings true with a few of the composed entrées. It's a tossup as to the more egregious example: paella studded with niçoise olives, shriveled green beans, and other superfluous additions, or angel hair pasta entwined with oysters, oyster mushrooms, slab bacon nubs, and paddlefish caviar (a cousin of sturgeon) in a roasted garlic cream sauce. The latter at least had some interesting flavor profiles, but the paella olives were simmered with the soft, overcooked rice so that their saline flavor soaked into not only the grains but also the meaty, mild, and quite absorbent scallops. Mussels, clams, and large, tough shrimp also mingled in the paellera, as did pieces of lobster tail chopped too small and nubs of spicy, naturally salty chorizo.
A simpler preparation of red snapper from the Keys pleased with thick, white flesh beneath crisply pan-seared skin. Alternating wedges of tomato and barely ripe avocado that propped the fish were dressed with "lemon vinaigrette and sea salt" but were marred by a dark pool of mostly balsamic vinegar. A pile of fried plantain chips covered the plate like a collapsed roof — or, more aptly, like a regrettable South Florida garnishing fetish of the '90s (that was already tired by '03).
At least one composition worked just fine. Mushroom-crusted grouper with shiitake mushroom caps in truffle-mushroom broth was deliriously delicious. The moist, flaky fish and earthy flavors were lifted by sweet parsnip purée and flecks of thyme. Plus you can consistently get a fresh and luscious entrée here by going simple: All fish comes grilled, steamed, or pan-seared with a choice of lemon butter, mango chutney, salsa verde, or Scotch bonnet vinaigrette. Points of origin are posted on the menu: black grouper from Nicaragua, yellowfin tuna from Trinidad, branzino from the Mediterranean, organic salmon from Ireland, and snapper, mahi-mahi, and swordfish snared from Florida waters. Go whole hog with a whole hog fish caught locally if you catch it on the specials board; it's a big mother with soft white meat. Such straightforward fish preparations allow both the flavor of the seafood and the kitchen's deftness to shine.
A glistening wedge of pristine mahi-mahi was grilled perfectly. We selected Scotch bonnet dressing on the side — sort of a spicy salsa — although lemon butter is probably the best bet (least overbearing) for most palates. Prices range from $22 to $30 for the à la carte fish, plus $4 to $9 if you choose an accouterment such as Brussels sprouts, roasted broccoli, rosemary French fries, mac 'n' cheese, or fried crab brown rice. The last featured lumps of crabmeat and minced vegetables stir-fried to lip-smacking effect with al dente brown rice, a grain that appears on so few local menus that it seems like an exotic ingredient.
Nonseafood entrées on deck are meat loaf, skirt steak, duck three ways, and risotto with truffles.
A pie of warm, fresh cherries in light syrup atop a flavorful if not flaky butter-based crust comes with vanilla ice cream, but we strongly recommend the coconut layer cake. It's the sort of giant wedge for at least two that you might find at a steak house: multiple layers of coconut-rum-soaked pound cake and vanilla pudding topped with soft, bronzed meringue icing and toasted coconut flakes. This sweet and others go for $7 — half what said steak house might charge.
Service showed an experience gained from employees working in a stable, established restaurant. It wouldn't surprise to learn that many of the waiters have been here for years. This professionalism, along with a convivial spirit and fresh seafood, makes the River Seafood & Oyster Bar a great catch for the neighborhood.