Nobody is perfect. The same holds true for restaurants, even those with mostly excellent food from celebrated chefs. For that reason, I often say the most revealing part of a restaurant is how it responds to a flub. Anybody can soak in the adulation of tasty success and pass along compliments to the chef. But what does the house do when something goes wrong? In the case of Fi’lia and an overcooked $129 mammoth steak Florentine, the answer was close to nothing. It made for an aggravating ending to what started as an excellent meal.
And it left me wondering if the lesson was to avoid 42-ounce porterhouse steaks or to avoid restaurants where servers or managers aren’t attuned to Customer Service 101.
It’s a shame, because Fi’lia exhibited flashes of brilliance, which is to be expected from Michael Schwartz, the man behind the revolutionary Michael’s Genuine Food and Drink and one of Miami’s top culinary talents. Schwartz hatched the Italian menu and rustic concept, which opened in October 2016 at the trendy SLS Brickell hotel. Interior designer Philippe Starck dressed the casual dining room in wood and warm earth tones around a wood-burning oven and grill behind the bar meant to feel like a hearth. Chef Joshua Wahler, formerly of Estiatorio Milos in Miami and Nisi in Fort Lauderdale, has helmed the kitchen the past six months.
They have smoothed out some rough edges, such as better ventilation with not as much smoke wafting into the dining room from the grill, but they still have other issues. Noise is still a problem when the dining room is full because of concrete floors and low ceilings. And live citrus trees and plants have been replaced by artificial ones because irrigation and grow lights were a problem. “I’m not a fake tree guy,” Schwartz says. “But at least the herb wall is still real.”
Those herbs are snipped and used in olive oil with bread and other dishes, part of the rustic charm that Schwartz says “is a return to my roots.” He spent the first 10 years of his career in his hometown of Philadelphia working in an Italian restaurant. He likes the simplicity of good Italian cooking, with quality ingredients allowed to shine.
“You don’t need to trick things out with 17 ingredients,” he says in a followup interview. “Just hit something with a little salt and pepper, throw it on the grill and don’t [mess] it up.” If only.
Fi’lia offers simple items grilled on oak and charcoal, high-end pizzas and pastas and a few populist nods to the masses such as chicken Parmesan and meatballs. The menu also features a few refined and ambitious dishes, such as butternut squash sformato ($13) a light custardy appetizer akin to flan. It was smooth, silky and superb.
Most everything we ordered in the opening courses was outstanding. The pizza special of the day ($20) was marvelous, topped with mozzarella, bacon, tomatoes and caramelized onions, with a thin crackling crust and honey-infused dough. Razor-thin beef carpaccio ($16) had crunch from wisps of fried potato, nutty sweetness from sunchokes, vibrant punch from scallions and vinaigrette, and airy pungency from shavings of Parmigiano-Reggiano. Pastas were wondrous, including a simple spaghetti caccio e pepe ($19) and a sophisticated agnolotti ($24) stuffed with pureed corn and topped with chunks of perfectly cooked lobster in a velvety sauce.
The Caesar salad ($24) is prepared tableside and is a showstopper worth every penny. A server mashed and mixed fresh anchovies with egg yolk, Dijon mustard and olive oil, while grilling bread for fresh croutons on a special hot plate built into the table. After hefty leaves of romaine were coated with dressing, a few red radicchio leaves thrown in for good measure, he cut up the bread and showered the plate with Parmigiano-Reggiano. Simple, gorgeous and delicious. Bravo.
We were in a very happy place, having bypassed the craft cocktails that are batched and bottled and stored in a super-cold refrigerator in favor of a trip straight to the Italian-heavy wine list. We sipped on a luscious 2006 Caiarossa Sangiovese blend ($105, fairly priced considering it retails for $75).
And then came the steak. It arrived from the grill looking pretty, a thick and hulking slab of domestic T-bone that had been dry-aged for 21 days. It was drizzled with olive oil, sliced family-style and reassembled around the bone. A few sprigs of rosemary loomed over one end, and some lemon wedges adorned the platter. The first pieces we took were more medium (pink) and medium-well than the ordered medium-rare plus (reddish-pink) but still acceptable. The sirloin side was a little bland, and the tenderloin side was overly salty. As we worked our way to the back of the T, things got worse. We stopped eating it. The rear pieces were shoe leather (also known as well done), and the rear bone disintegrated to ash when I poked at it with a fork.
It was unfortunate and baffling, particularly because the grill team had cooked a giant prawn appetizer ($22) to smoky and succulent perfection.
I called over our server.
“This isn’t medium-rare plus,” I said. He just stood there.
“Look, we’ve already eaten a bunch, so I don’t expect you to cook us another one or to take it off the check,” I said. “I just want you to let the kitchen know that this was overcooked.”
He left the platter on the table and walked away. We turned our attention to our other food, including a delicious seafood stew ($39) and a roasted cauliflower side ($9).
When we were done with our mains, the server looked at the uneaten steak and asked if we wanted to take it home.
“Does anybody have a dog?” I asked my dining mates. On further reflection, that could be considered animal cruelty.
Schwartz was not happy when I recounted the experience a few days later. He doesn’t run day-to-day operations at Fi’lia, but his name and reputation are attached to it.
“It’s not that hard,” he says. “The appropriate response is you do whatever it takes to make the guest feel more comfortable. Apologize, acknowledge that it’s not cooked properly, take it away for the chef to see it. This is something we deal with all the time.”
He says properly cooking a signature big-ticket item to the ordered doneness is what a polished and consistent kitchen is supposed to do. And showing some goodwill after a mistake, in the form of comped desserts or drinks, is what servers and managers are trained to do.
We ordered desserts. One tablemate requested a cheese plate. “We don’t have that,” the server said.
I insisted. Eventually, another server returned with a small plate of Taleggio, Parmesan and smoked mozzarella. “I’ve never seen the chef do that,” he said.
All our other desserts and an after-dinner drink made their way onto the final bill. The cheese did not.
I get the feeling it was only because they didn’t have a key on the computer to ring it up. Fi’lia has some excellent food, but it still has a ways to go with its manners.
1300 S. Miami Ave. (in SLS Brickell hotel), Miami
305-239-1300 or SBE.com/Restaurants/Locations/Filia-at-SLS-Brickell
Cost: Expensive to very expensive. Appetizers, salads, pizza and pastas cost $8 to $24. Entrees $25 to $129. Desserts $5 to $12
Hours: 7 a.m.-10:30 p.m. daily (until midnight Friday-Saturday)
Reservations: Online and by phone
Credit cards: All major
Bar: Full bar with specialty batched and bottled cocktails and good Italian-centric wine list
Sound level: Noisy inside when full. Patio dining available
Wheelchair access: Hotel ground level with ramps from sidewalk
Parking: Valet $13 with validation or metered street