BASKET CASE

There are two times of the year I can't get enough of alfresco eating: October-November and March-April. I'm not alone in this. I know there are others out there. Maybe you're a year-round citizen like myself, just recovering from cabin fever. Or perhaps you've just returned from some lovely green place where you spend your summers: To you, Arizona is synonymous with phrases like "Nice weather, isn't it?" and "Let's eat on the patio!" Or maybe this is your first visit and you think it's like this year-round. (Excuse me while I guffaw.)

At any rate, the picnic mood is upon me. Bring your sunscreen, if you wish, and join me. Our first stop is the Picknic Trapp on North Marshall Way in Scottsdale.

The Picknic Trapp used to be called Picknicken. The menu and location are the same; I'm told the only changes are the owners and the name. My dining accomplice and I visit for lunch on a beautiful Tuesday in late October. The temperature is slightly higher than what I'd term "ideal," but anything less than 100 degrees becomes acceptable after a while. After parking, we approach the corner of Third Avenue and North Marshall Way on foot. Most of the restaurant's dining area is outside, and threads back between two buildings at this intersection. Screened shade is provided. We enter the storefront to ask if there is table service. When we're told there is, we grab menus, return outside, select a table for two and sit. I like the blue-and-white-checked tablecloths and the matching striped chairs. A young waitress comes over to us. When we explain that we're not ready, she takes our drink order and leaves us alone for a few minutes. This gives us time to study the menu and contemplate the specials listed on a nearby display board.

With no clue as to portion sizes, we each decide to order the picnic for one, which includes soup, salad or fresh fruit, any sandwich and a homemade cookie. We also request the chicken salad--as a salad, not a sandwich--and today's special tuna-broccoli salad. Prices seem a little high, but this is gallery row in Scottsdale, after all.

Looking around, I observe that our fellow picnickers fall into four basic categories: tony gallery employees, well-dressed shoppers, casual businessmen and foreign visitors. My accomplice and I have just come from a quick tour of the zoo. Our casual attitudes and attire make us the exception here. No, that's not true. The foreign visitors are clad just like us. Their cameras make them look more dressed up. Our picnic is delivered to our table in a lined wooden picnic basket. Everything, save my accomplice's tossed salad, is neatly stacked inside. I'm especially charmed that the individual halves of our sandwiches are wrapped in wax paper. It makes it so much easier to share. Suddenly, I feel like I'm on a real old-fashioned picnic, the kind where choosing one's sandwich is a major part of the fun.

But first things first. My accomplice tackles his salad; I savor my spicy beef soup. On looks alone, the salad is above average. It features leaf lettuce, carrot slices, red cabbage, cucumber and cauliflower. Honey-mustard dressing is sweet, but dignified.

The spicy beef soup is surprising. Though the spices are not particularly incendiary, the dish still wins me over. I had expected something creamy and gloppy. Instead, I am served a vegetable-beef soup with a thin red broth and loads of vegetables and new potatoes. If the weather were a little cooler, I would gobble down the whole container. As it is, I can't finish it. I'm too hot.

I begin to nosh in earnest on one-half of the vegetarian sandwich. Homemade whole wheat bread provides a firm foundation for the leaf lettuce, alfalfa sprouts, cucumber, tomato, avocado and thin-sliced dofino and cheddar cheeses that make up the filling. I approve the freshness of all the ingredients and the sturdiness of the lovely bread. Which brings me to an important point. The bread is Paul Bunyan size here. Half of one slice equals one whole slice of, say, Pepperidge Farm bread. When you look at it this way, one sandwich at the Picknic Trapp is really two sandwiches. I quickly realize we'll be bringing food home with us.

I convince my accomplice to trade sandwich halves with me. "This way we can try both of them," I cajole. Sadly, the pink smoked turkey and creamy dofino cheese sandwich on homemade sourdough bread nullifies my victory. Compared with the hearty vegetarian sandwich, these fillings seem chintzy. Plus, I'm not pleased with the homemade sourdough. The thick slices taste like plain old doughy white bread. I tire of it quickly.

I'm happy with the special salad of the day, tuna-broccoli--though my dining accomplice sees nothing special about it. I admire the addition of rotini pasta and tomato. I also like the texture of the fresh broccoli flowerettes contrasted with the large flakes of albacore. Dill mayonnaise is the perfect dressing. The portion is most generous.

But the chicken salad disapppoints me. When compared with our large serving of tuna-broccoli salad, it looks like we got gypped. (I know, I know. "Consistency is the hobgoblin," et cetera. But . . . ) Furthermore, the salad is overloaded with celery. The moral? Have a chicken salad sandwich, not a chicken salad. Let the Paul Bunyan scale work in your favor.

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