"I need a piece of plastic with some money on it!"
So said the bartender as she set our drinks on the bar for what would be a 30-minute wait for our reservation on a Saturday night.
Oak Tavern is that kind of place. Can't decide if it wants to be a bar or a restaurant. Can't decide if it believes in training its wait staff or letting them roam free. Free of the usual characteristics commonly found in restaurant service: affability, promptness, accessibility.
Toward the end of dinner when a manager approached our table — aware that service hadn't gone well — I suggested the problem might be too many customers and too few waiters.
"Well, that's Miami!" he said.
I'm not sure what that means. But what I do know is that Oak Tavern is an obnoxiously busy restaurant on a Saturday night. At 10 p.m., a party of 30 sat down to celebrate a birthday.
Restaurants get to choose the volume at which they operate, and Oak Tavern loves to be at full tilt. It creates a less than ideal environment for eating, but a superb spot for drinking. Hasn't Oak Tavern ever heard of crowd control?
If chef David Bracha's menu was just a little more consistent and service improved, the food might not get so lost in the din.
Bracha, who also operates River Seafood & Oyster Bar in downtown Miami, has created an American menu in the truest sense: a mosaic of flavors inspired by Italy and Peru, Vietnam and France, Cuba and South Florida.
There's an entire section devoted to charcuterie ($9 for one or $22 for two), much of it made in-house including the glorious duck prosciutto and sopressata. Pair it with cheese ($6 for one or $16 for three) — Belle & The Bees chevre from Alabama or Morbier from France.
We couldn't resist creamy deviled eggs ($10) with paddlefish caviar or bacalao croquettes ($7) with saffron aioli. Bracha's banh mi sandwiches ($10) are made with pork belly, foie gras and pickled vegetables. All of these small plates are perfect with drinks or any of the eight beers on tap including Schnebly Big Rod Coconut pilsener from Homestead and Due South Category 3 India Pale Ale from Boynton Beach.
From the a la plancha section of the menu, we found incredible Alaskan halibut ($30) served alongside a ham broth with ramps and fiddlehead ferns. As a kid growing up in Canada, fiddlehead ferns were always a sure sign of spring. On my first visit, octopus ($14) served with a simple chick pea salad was one of the best dishes I sampled. But on a second visit, we returned the dish because the octopus was cold.
Minty lamb ribs ($18) from the wood grill reminded me of the best Middle Eastern-style version. Oak Tavern's are served with arugula-mint pesto and Greek yogurt. But if you're a burger kind of eater, you'll have no objection to the grass fed cheeseburger ($10) with New York cheddar.
The kitchen also has a nice way with vegetables including wood grilled leeks with romesco ($6) and Brussels sprouts ($7) with parmesan. Rapini ($9) is served with delicious house-made Italian sausage. Warm fava beans ($12) with duck prosciutto and pecorino would have been so much better had the poached egg not been hard-boiled. Like so many restaurants that served small plates, dishes are served as they're ready. But it was strange to be served a little bowl of Brussels sprouts before anything else came to the table.
Oak Tavern gets its name from the transplanted oak tree that sits in the restaurant's courtyard. The indoor/outdoor dining room seats 140, but it certainly felt over capacity on my second visit to the restaurant. The tree motif is repeated inside with large floor lamps with carved wood bases. Tables are made from reclaimed wood and the big communal table next to the bustling bar is set on wheels. It's a long way from the old British-themed Piccadilly Garden that once operated here.
As lovely as the restaurant is, we were seated under an air conditioner that dripped on the shoulders of two at our table.
As they say at Oak Tavern: "That's Miami!"
35 NE 40 St., Miami
Hours: Dinner daily, lunch weekdays, Sunday brunch
Credit cards: All major
Bar: Full service
Sound level: Noisy when full
Outside smoking: No
For kids: High chairs, menu items on request
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Parking: $3 valet