Located in Sunset Harbor – a South Beach neighborhood, which until someone checks the numbers, I will maintain has the highest per capita of juice bars and gyms in the world – Soul Tavern is an Instagrammer’s dream. A typical experience at vegetarian restaurants in Miami-Dade means folding chairs made out of plastic and plates made out of paper; not exactly date-night material, so to speak. In contrast, at Soul Tavern you are welcomed by a serene patio where patrons can dine, and an interior that is modern and cozy, with dark woods and exposed beams. Unlike so many other vegetarian places, Soul Tavern looks like – and I mean this in the best possible way – a real restaurant. No expired bottles of Green Goddess dressing for sale on otherwise barren shelves, and no walls adorned with broken frames containing posters extolling the benefits of a raw diet. Whether the physical space is your style or not, it is obvious that a non-trivial amount of time, thought, and money went into creating it. The same can be said of the menu, but where the former flourished, the latter floundered.
Soul Tavern brands itself as a gastropub, and like I suppose many other restaurants with that label, the menu is eclectic. There are options for all tastes, ranging from Banh-Mi BBQ sliders to Soulful Ramen. There is a brunch menu, but my wife and I went on a Sunday night, so we got dinner.
For an appetizer, we selected the Hearts of Palm Cakes, and for main courses, the Naughty Gnocchi and Metal Pizza. Given the marketing around Soul Tavern, we were, one, surprised that the default on the pizza is regular cheese, and two, that a restaurant which advertises itself as plant-based would charge extra for vegan cheese.
The gnocchi arrived before the appetizer, but we’re not picky, so we dug in. While I was munching on the charred shoshito peppers that came atop of it, my always astute wife observed that gnocchi with red sauce is no place for shoshito peppers. I could not argue her point, but nonetheless, considered them a distinguishing feature.
If you have ever prepared gnocchi from scratch, you know that it requires a considerable amount of work, making it that much more of a treat to eat out. The gnocchi at Soul Tavern was soft and smooth – like quality gnocchi is – but praise for it ends where the red sauce it was served in begins. It was somewhat better than the medium quality stuff from a jar, but not as good as a quick weeknight version you could make on your stove top using canned tomatoes. And it is telling that I nearly forgot to mention the macadamia nut cheese that decorated the plate, which we suspect was simply not-so-well ground macadamia nuts. There are many ways to make delectable vegan cheese, but alas, that is not one of them.
Next came the Hearts of Palm Cakes, which like everything at Soul Tavern, looked spectacular. Ignoring the accoutrements – lemon-dill foam and mango habanero aioli – the Cakes felt like a first draft, with the revised version yet to come. They were bland and uneventful, and though the aoili was a welcome addition, there wasn’t enough of it to overcome the Cakes’ deficits.
The “Metal” pesto pizza came last, which more than anything, was confusing. The crust was respectable, but going into any detail about it would suggest that what was on it was worth having. Rather, we could not actually taste the pesto, and granted it was dark on the patio where we ate, we also had difficulty seeing it. That is too bad, because it would have offered a much needed improvement to the pizza’s dry, tasteless, vegan cheese.
We rebuffed the waiter’s offer for dessert, and instead walked across the street and picked up an almond chocolate bar from Fresh Market, which turned out to be the most satisfying (and inexpensive) meal of the evening.
There is though one additional thing that we got at Soul Tavern which I have not yet mentioned. After being seated, the waiter said that for $1 per person guests are given unlimited refills of 4-times filtered water. As my wife and I do when being sold water, we responded by asking for the good ol’ stuff from the tap. Where at most restaurants this results in the waiter acquiescing, at Soul Tavern he kindly responded that because it is a health-conscious restaurant, they don’t serve tap water (he did say he would bring the filtered water at no charge). Where I could have pointed out the inconsistency of a health-focused restaurant serving fried food, or mentioned that the very-clean-safe-to-drink Miami-Dade water is surely a better option for one’s liver than their overpriced cocktails, I abstained, and instead thanked him. I mention this because it is emblematic of Soul Tavern: A nice idea until you scratch just beneath the surface.
At this point it may seem like a strange conclusion, but I wouldn’t strongly advise against giving Soul Tavern a try. I have limitless admiration for its proprietors, who built a bold, beautiful, audacious (and all other related adjectives) restaurant. I would love to see other ambitious, vegan-focused restaurateurs with similar ideas come to South Florida, I just hope for a more a palatable execution.