Restaurant Reviews

With Oak Tavern, David Bracha Takes Root in the Design District

Oak Tavern's wooden tables are worn — their faded chocolate surfaces fashioned out of reclaimed lumber, their corners burnt with the logo of a majestic oak. Outside, a courtyard envelops the eponymous tree. Inside, red brick walls guard a precarious past. In less than a decade, the Design District space has housed several restaurants: the neighborhood hangout Piccadilly Garden for years, Jonathan Eismann's Pacific Time from 2008 to 2010, and a Spanish joint named Andalus, which lasted less than a year in 2011. The spot's latest reincarnation debuted in November 2012.

See also:
- Closer Look: Oak Tavern in the Design District

But this long history is not what makes the restaurant feel comfortable. Instead, it's the rosemary-roasted almonds served at the bar. It's the baskets of fresh buttermilk biscuits, flaky orbs of dough with brittle crusts and puffed centers that smell and taste like home. In a city where most places charge exorbitant prices for water, Oak Tavern proffers these leavened cakes, alongside rich bacon-studded butter, for free.

David Bracha is the chef and restaurateur behind these biscuits, as well as the acclaimed Brickell restaurant the River Seafood & Oyster Bar. The Brooklyn native, who got his start at the fabled La Caravelle in New York and then alongside Norman Van Aken in the 1980s, has been a proponent of local produce and modern interpretations of seafood at his riverside spot since 2003.

Now, with the premiere of Oak Tavern, Bracha has established himself in a neighborhood crowded with Miami's most talented chefs. In this section of the Design District, nestled between North Miami Avenue and NE Second Avenue near 40th Street, the food is good, checks are sensible, and environs are easygoing yet cool. Michael Schwartz has his flagship, Michael's Genuine Food & Drink, along with its sibling, Harry's Pizzeria, just down the block. Dena Marino has MC Kitchen and an adjoining casual café, Mercato. Nowhere else in the city is there such a concentration of skilled kitchen work. (Although South Beach's Pubbelly mecca comes close.)

Bracha enlisted Oahu-born Curtis Rhodes as his chef de cuisine. The 34-year-old, who has a background in Hawaiian regional cuisine, was previously a chef at the River. At Oak Tavern, the duo has developed a style of American cooking that combines Brickell's pristine fish with heartier, homespun eats: house-cured charcuterie, grilled meats, and wood-oven-baked pizzas. The resulting cuisine bespeaks refinement and rusticity. Its finesse traces to a seasoned restaurateur and talented chef.

A freestanding wine cooler looms over the 140-seat dining room. Its interior holds dangling forcemeats: mixtures of minced meat emulsified with fatback and aged for weeks at a time. On the menu, charcuterie selections include domestic cured products such as Surryano Virginia prosciutto and Fra' Mani California chorizo. But best are the house-cured options: Tuscan fennel salami, Calabrese salami, bresaola, duck prosciutto, and soppressata. They are all served atop a wooden plank alongside classic accompaniments, including sliced artisan bread, whole-grain mustard, pickled carrots, cucumber, green beans, mustard fruit, and marinated Cerignola olives. These portions are generous and could easily suffice as a light lunch or dinner.

Oak Tavern also offers a good selection of craft suds. (There's even $3 Pabst Blue Ribbon.) For less than $15 total, you can enjoy a bottle of beer with your charcuterie platter. Thin slices of scarlet bresaola — ribbons of raw beef cured by salting and air-drying — paired with a bottle of Florida amber ale Monk in the Trunk, is unadulterated comfort.

House-cured meats are popping up in chef-driven restaurants nationwide, but Oak Tavern deviates from that trendy ethos. Lesser cooks around town splash farm names and vegetable sources across their menus. Bracha, a supporter of local growers such as Borek, Paradise, and Swank, forgoes those obnoxious antecedents. Only cheeses and charcuterie include origins. Bracha knows: Let the freshness of an heirloom tomato speak louder than the lineage listed on the page.

Clean flavors characterize the understated, farm-centered offerings. Vibrant emerald fava beans are tossed with blistered luscious red and yellow tomatoes and chunks of rendered duck ham. A crostini tops the vegetables, as well as a poached egg from Ocoee's Lake Meadow Naturals. Other side dishes are listed under "market vegetables." They include tender, butter-doused Brussels sprouts with Parmesan cheese, and seared kale with a touch of garlic and a whole lot of olive oil.

It's expected that Rhodes and Bracha triumph at seafood dishes. And, indeed, the River's roots hold true here. An order of stone crab crostini summons two toasted slices of baguette slathered with thick avocado spread and layered with the crab's sweet meat. The flesh has been pulled apart gently and then combined with celery and mayonnaise. This type of snack, along with the charcuterie, makes Oak Tavern one of the best after-work drink spots in town.

Other fish platters also delight. The flawless flavors in a snapper crudo — thin pieces of white flesh doused in lemon juice and topped with dill — benefit from a green topping of minced olives. In another dish, a few mouthfuls of charred octopus rest atop an herbed chickpea and carrot salad. At $14, though, the petite portion seems disproportionate to the price.

At times, an excessive use of oil tarnishes the cooking at Oak Tavern. Crisp pig ears, slowly cooked in their own fat and then deep-fried in oil, were a grease-ridden rendition of the snack best-known at neighbor Michael's Genuine. The offal packed too little crunch and far too much chew. They were paired with oleaginous fried kale and a fried egg dusted with pimento, and the combination of oil upon oil proved overwhelming and poorly constructed. Wood-grilled lamb ribs, served alongside a bright arugula-and-mint pesto plus lemon yogurt, also packed an excess of fat. But in the lamb's case, the impeccable sauces balanced the otherwise-indulgent meat.

With delectable homespun dishes and an affordable drink program, Oak Tavern triumphs in a neck of the woods that boasts some of the best chefs in town. In a space previously tainted with failure, Bracha has developed a place that feels at ease. And in a town riddled by oscillating businesses and wavering fads, he has struck a balance between style and comfort.

That's why Oak Tavern is poised to fare better and longer than the rest.

See also:
- Closer Look: Oak Tavern in the Design District
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Emily Codik

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