It's probably no surprise that a 90-seat neighborhood restaurant is packed on a Saturday night. But on a Wednesday night? In late April?
Even more surprising is that Timo this month celebrates its 10th anniversary. If you want to see a successful restaurant in action, look no further.
When Tim Andriola and Rodrigo Martinez opened Timo in 2003, I remember thinking it was an odd spot for the modern Mediterranean they were setting out to serve. At the time, Miami restaurateurs were clamoring for spots in South Beach, but Andriola and Martinez chose a part of town that was just shaking its faded resort reputation.
These days, Sunny Isles Beach is lined with condo towers. And Timo attracts regulars from Hollywood to the north and Aventura to the west, despite its low-key, storefront location in a shopping plaza on busy Collins Avenue. Inside the front door, however, is a handsome restaurant done entirely in shades of brown. I can imagine grabbing a late-night bite at the 40-seat bar on one side of the room. The back of the dining room is framed by a wood-burning oven and an open kitchen. I love the small booths, which are perfect for two, and the long banquette that runs the length of the restaurant. The dining room isn't glitzy. It's just comfortable, inviting and efficiently organized. The closer-set tables give Timo a big-city feel.
The menu is equal parts Italian and contemporary American. Among the sides, for instance, are roasted Brussels sprouts with Sicilian olive gremolata ($7) and sauteed Tuscan kale with black garlic and fresh bread crumbs ($8). Both are outstanding.
It has been years since my last meal here, so I can't remember if there's more emphasis on local ingredients or if it was there all along. My favorite starter may be a dish our waiter told us has been on the menu since day one. Crispy oyster salad with cannellini beans, frisee and pancetta ($11) is simple enough. But why have I never before been served fried oysters on a salad? Just brilliant. It takes a special kind of creative stamina to serve one dish so well for so long.
Among the small plates is amazing short-rib lasagna ($16) with wild mushrooms, fontina and shaved black truffle. It's rich enough to split two ways. One night, four of us dove in. Spicy tuna tartar with preserved Meyer lemons, Calabrian chiles and pea-shoot salad ($16) is hardly spicy, but it's nicely balanced to showcase the tuna. The wood-fired oven puts out thinly crusted — traditional or whole-wheat — pizzas. Mixed wild mushroom ($16) is topped with Asiago, applewood smoked bacon and cherry tomatoes that literally burst in each bite.
If you thought everything about skirt steak ($26) had been said, try Andriola's. The wildly tender meat is simply marinated in garlic and lemon before being grilled. Then, it's served with thick-cut, crisp fries. They're piled in a crosshatch pattern, elevating the humble French fry to a mythic scale. Dijon-crusted lamb chops ($36) are perfectly tender, served with goat-cheese gnudi, fava beans, tomatoes and Nicoise olives. Amish chicken breast ($26) gets a light prosciutto stuffing. It sits in a creamy risotto flavored with fontina and pan jus.
Seafood may be even better than red meat at Timo. Branzino ($26) is prepared en papillote with asparagus, lemon confit and basil butter, and the result is an intensely mild-flavored fillet that gives me still another reminder of just how well Andriola's kitchen runs. Chilean sea bass ($34) with creamy polenta, mushrooms and black truffles doesn't overpower the innate sweetness of the fish. Chefs, too, often want to serve sea bass with a sweet sauce. It's not necessary.
In two visits, I hardly touched the pasta portion of the menu except for burrata-filled ravioli ($22) with fresh tomato, chili flakes, olive oil, garlic and basil. But I am tempted by orecchiette ($23) with lamb meatballs, baby spinach, borlotti beans, rosemary broth and pecorino.
Pastry chef Michelle Negron is obviously well schooled in the classics, but confident enough to play around with her classic training. If you like things caramel, Negron is your friend.
I'd forgotten how much I liked macadamia nuts until digging into her macadamia brittle and gelato with caramelized bananas, pineapple and toasted coconut. The brittle takes the form of a thin-walled container that holds the gelato. The warm-liquid-center chocolate cake ($9) — I'm so glad the menu doesn't call it "molten — is served with caramelized banana ice cream and dulce de leche.
Negron combines two classics into an incredible dessert she calls chocolate genoise cheese flan ($9). Imagine the light chocolate cake coming together with a flan. It's served with salted caramel, toasted coconut and vanilla ice cream.
Exceptional hospitality starts at the front door and continues throughout the meal. Service is a group effort with other servers acting as food runners. There's no such thing as a dish dying while it waits to be served. I wish more restaurants used this system.
I wish more restaurants were like Timo. Happy anniversary! Here's to many, many more years.
17624 Collins Ave., RK Beach Plaza, Sunny Isles Beach
Hours: Lunch weekdays, dinner daily
Credit cards: All major
Bar: Full service
Sound level: Can get noisy
Outside smoking: Yes
For kids: Highchairs, boosters, menu items on request
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Parking: Free lot and valet