I went for a meal. I ended up with an ordeal.
And now, after eating at Timo twice in the past four months, I'm as confounded as ever. Timo has been a dependable Sunny Isles Beach staple since 2003, a stylish and sophisticated Italian-Mediterranean restaurant run by chef-owner Tim Andriola and business partner Rodrigo Martinez. The eatery has earned high praise through the years, including a top four-star rating from my predecessor in 2013.
But it's not four-star anymore. The service is stellar, the atmosphere is polished and most dishes are still good. It's just that I don't know if I can trust the place. And I know I wouldn't eat raw fish or seafood there again.
I ate at Timo for the first time in August. When my group departed, the consensus was that it was a solid three-star (good) restaurant, showing its age a bit with some outdated presentations and some uneven — and pricey — food. Many dishes still shined, such as the signature black-truffle white pizza, the housemade pasta with morel mushrooms, and a $46 wood-grilled rib-eye with a Gorgonzola risotto cake.
For that visit, my dining group included a local chef with whom I've become friendly, and a visiting chef from North Carolina. At Timo, I didn't reveal who I was, but when the chefs started talking shop with the server, asking about the sourcing of ingredients and mentioning their own restaurants, the kitchen graciously sent out plates of complimentary foie gras and glasses of Sauternes. Life was good.
But a few hours later, it wasn't. I awoke in the middle of the night with nausea and indigestion, and the next day I found out two of my three dining companions also had gastrointestinal problems after the meal. One had stomach cramps and vomited. The other had diarrhea. The only person who didn't get sick: the visiting chef's wife, who doesn't eat seafood. We wondered if a seafood appetizer platter or a fish entrée with baby squid did us in, because the two chefs and I each tried those dishes. The seafood appetizer had some raw and undercooked items, including tuna tartare and a sea bass crudo.
"I'm kind of dumbfounded," Andriola said when I called to discuss the experience. "This is the first time I've ever heard anything like this."
Andriola was apologetic, and said, "Our seafood is all fresh. We get sushi-grade tuna delivered every day."
He asked if I could return for another meal. I wanted to give Andriola another chance, because he is known as one of South Florida's top chefs and someone who donates his time and talents to charity events and causes. The visiting chef, who runs a highly regarded seafood restaurant on the North Carolina coast, told me he sympathized, because sometimes even the best kitchens stumble.
So in November, after Andriola had unveiled a revamped fall menu, I went back unannounced with a friend who had never dined at Timo.
After the meal, I learned that in October state health inspectors had cited Timo for four high-priority and nine intermediate violations that required a follow-up inspection the next day. Among the high-priority violations on Oct. 18, according to the inspection report: "Fish offered raw or undercooked has not undergone proper parasite destruction."
In an interview after my November visit, Andriola said at the time of the inspection he "didn't know what the law was" when it came to freezing tuna and other fish to kill parasites. That was disconcerting. I had learned from a sushi chef earlier this year that even high-quality fish must be frozen for a period before being served raw, the lower the temperature the better. The restaurant passed its Oct. 19 follow-up inspection, and Andriola said he is now following all proper procedures.
This wasn't the first time Timo has had problems with state inspectors. In August 2015, the restaurant was temporarily closed after live roaches were found in the kitchen. Andriola said other restaurants in the same strip plaza also were ordered shut that day, and he attributed the infestation to the demolition of nearby buildings that might have driven the bugs to their location.
According to the state, that emergency inspection was prompted by a complaint from a Timo employee. One week before the closure, a worker alerted officials about a roach problem and told them he had video evidence. "Roaches are crawling everywhere and they get into the food that is being cooked," according to the complaint report. "The pest control agent told [the worker] that the restaurant needs to be closed in order to deal with the infestation."
Andriola told me that complaint came from a disgruntled part-time maintenance worker who had been fired for alleged theft. "We worked very hard to contain what happened," Andriola said.
Other things make me wonder about Timo's direction. The restaurant is in litigation with state authorities over its liquor license, which remains active. Andriola said the dispute stems from a change in the restaurant's seating configuration. A state spokeswoman said the case relates to an alleged violation of the restaurant's liquor license, with the state alleging the restaurant derives more than half its revenue from alcohol sales.
And in June, Andriola and Martinez closed Basil Park, their health-themed restaurant in the same strip mall, after two years. Andriola said they decided to close Basil Park after "we got in over our heads financially." Andriola said he is now rededicated to Timo, in the kitchen almost every day. "It's all I have," Andriola said.
On my second visit in November, we entered a nearly full dining room, packed with seasonal, well-heeled residents who live in the surrounding high-rise condos. Timo seemed to be gliding into season just fine.
The meal was just fine, too, our only complaints of the nitpicky, food-snobby kind. There was a delectable quail appetizer ($16), stuffed with polenta, sausage and Parmesan and surrounded by whipped parsnip and a Pinot Noir reduction. There was a filet mignon carpaccio pizza ($21) with Yukon gold potato puree, fontina cheese and truffle oil that was a little heavy on the oil and light on meat flavor. There was a hearty pork shoulder risotto ($23) topped with a wonderful bacon and onion marmalade. There was branzino ($38) with crispy skin that was a bit overcooked (better than the alternative, all things considered), but it was still delicious, with a velvety Meyer lemon sauce. And there was crunchy macadamia brittle ($10) with creamy gelato and caramelized banana and pineapple.
If there was no back story, my friend said he would give the place three stars. But meals do not occur in a vacuum. Thankfully, my latest visit ended with no ill effects.
17624 Collins Ave., Sunny Isles Beach
Cuisine: Italian-Mediterranean, with wood-grilled pizzas
Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Thursday. Dinner nightly at 6; until 10:30 Sunday-Thursday and 11 Friday-Saturday
Credit cards: All major
Bar: Full bar and extensive wine list
Sound level: Conversational
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Parking: Valet and free lot