A Wonderful Day in the Neighborhood
The post-9/11 climate, from SARS to orange alerts to worrisome economic conditions, has led to a dining trend toward affordable neighborhood restaurants that offer simply designed, well-prepared foods served with a friendly face -- upscaled Happy Meals for nervous adults, if you will. Tim Zagat goes so far as to claim that "90 percent of the restaurants opening today" fall into this niche. Now, with the arrival of Timó (Italian for "thyme"), even residents of Sunny Isles can dine in style without having to travel far.
The inconspicuous storefront entrance (two blocks north of the Rascal House) is one of innumerable other storefronts lined, tucked, and hidden away in the multitude of strip malls on upper Collins Avenue. But that's the point -- to provide locals with something more sophisticated than the shasliks, potato latkes, and egg rolls sold in these shopping center eateries. Timó's chef/co-owner Tim Andriola, who has lived in this neighborhood for ten years, was no doubt keenly aware of its dearth of desirable dining establishments.
Andriola last impressed during his three-year stint as executive chef of Mark's South Beach, and his résumé is rife with impressive names: Chez Panisse, Tra Vigne, Olives, and, locally, Chef Allen's, where he was chef de cuisine for five years. Co-proprietor Rodrigo Martinez, who oversees Timó's front-of-house operations, also enters the partnership fresh from a successful engagement -- as general manager and wine director of Norman's. So naturally you'd expect this joint venture of theirs to engage with terrific cuisine and attentive service. And that's just what it does.
Timó's inauspicious location only makes entry into the warm and intimate interior that much more of a pleasant surprise. The décor is comfortably contemporary, the right side of the room taken up with a long wood bar leading into a lounge area with sofa and coffee table, the main 120-seat dining area dressed minimally in natural earth tones -- exposed brick, exposed wood beams, wood floors, and a wood-burning oven framed in stone.
The food, likewise, comes comfortably contemporary and minimally dressed in earth tones -- some porcinis here, a little truffle oil there, and so on. The menu is mostly a mix of Mediterranean and Italian compositions with some creative food pairings, but no bold, experimental touches; then again, we didn't encounter any clinkers, either. The only objectionable aspect of the menu is the menu itself -- a laminated page too inelegant and dinerish for so smart and handsome a restaurant, even a neighborhood one.
An appetizer of braised squid stuffed with Swiss chard was presented home-style Italian, smothered without fanfare in a neat, sweet red sauce with slightly acidic tomato bite -- and a spicier bite from Calabrian chilies. Ultimately it contained more heat than excitement. Another starter, thinly shaved slices of octopus (which more pretentious places might refer to as "octopus carpaccio"), exhibited a lighter, brighter touch, with green olives, snippets of preserved lemon, and a splash of fruity olive oil quietly supplementing the octopus's subtly rich flavor. Five panko-breaded, deftly fried oysters warmed a cool salad of white beans, teeny bits of smoky pancetta, and frizzy frisée dressed with pancetta vinaigrette.
Timó's tantalizing take on the traditional New England dish of chicken and dumplings perhaps best exemplifies the comfortable contemporariness referred to earlier. A meltingly moist half-chicken, roasted in the wood-burning oven, arrived in a bowl of truffled poultry broth. The fab funghi flavor also infused a bundle of bright green spinach beneath the bird, and denser-than-they-need-to-be Parmesan dumplings.
It was on the basis of my sense-memory of this truffled broth that, on the next visit to Timó, I ordered a wood-fired pizza topped with ricotta, fontina, roasted chicken, little cubes of tomato and wild mushrooms ... and white truffle oil. The crust was so thin the pie might better be described as a wood-burning tortilla, but its skinny nature worked well in the context of a not-too-filling appetizer. The pizza topping, no doubt helped along by that magically musty oil, was the tastiest I've had in a long time.
Pumpkin ravioli, filled with roasted squash and ricotta, were imbued with a sweet buttery flavor and flecked with smoked ham and pecorino cheese. They are of a delicate, not plump nature, but generously enough portioned to satisfy as a main course. You can have your ravioli and seafood too by ordering a succulent square of black grouper, the white, meaty fish browned to a golden hue and nestled with puréed artichoke-ricotta ravioli in a bowl of fennel and wine-infused fish broth. A richer option comes via two tender scaloppinis of veal topped with porcini mushrooms, nuggets of crisp sweetbreads, and a deep brown marsala sauce.
A granita of double espresso is about as refreshing and stimulating a way to end a meal as is possible, the potent coffee taste dominating a wisp of sambuca froth and packing enough caffeine to ensure your being awake for the (short) drive home. Spumoni is another appealing dessert idea, this old-timey Italian treat featuring a thick slice of layered pistachio, cherry, and chocolate gelati ridged with a scorched meringue.
Timó's prices are decent, almost all entrées under $20. A full dinner, with tax, tip, and bottled water, will run around $50 per person, but it's possible to stop by for a pizza, plate of pasta, or that aromatic roast chicken, along with soup or salad and tax and tip, for about $30. These estimations don't include wine, but you'll likely be tempted by the many Mediterranean selections. It would be neighborly of Timó to consider offering more than four red wines by the glass, though.
Service is promising at this early stage of Timó. The waiters have evidently been trained in the professional methodology of serving people, and while some haven't yet become accustomed to doing so in a smooth, second-nature manner, you get the feeling that under Rodrigo Martinez's tutelage they'll acquire seasoning quicker than chicken under a salt shaker. Rodrigo is perpetually there, backing up his crew, seeing that all is running well, and making customers feel at home. It is, in fact, Timó's warm hospitality, combined with accommodating service and honest, approachable cuisine, that could lead to the unprecedented occurrence of South Beach residents driving to Sunny Isles for dinner. Which of course would defeat the whole eat-close-to-home idea.
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