Ambiance Chasers

Timothy's, 6335 North 16th Street, Phoenix, 277-7634. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Dinner, 5 p.m. to midnight, seven days a week.

What's one difference between people and animals? Animals feed; humans dine.
When my family sits down for dinner, I like to think that we've come together for more than simply filling our individual bellies. As social creatures, we naturally share an interest in adorning our meals with amiable conversation.

Sometimes, however, the dinner-table conversation throws my appetite into reverse. "What's up in school?" I ask one kid. "My French class is going to France for three weeks. Can I have $2,250?" Kid number two, meanwhile, wants to know how old you have to be to join the Hare Krishnas. My wife reports that she's noticed the car making an odd clunka-clunka noise.

What's the solution? Turning on the idiot box? That cure is worse than the disease. Listening to the news on the radio? Hearing about the day's Bosnian atrocities isn't going to do much for my digestion. Burying our noses in books? We might as well not be in the same room at all.

It seems to me that when dinner-table conversation isn't working, there's only one civilized alternative: music.

Restaurants know this, too. And more and more of them are offering live music with dinner. Customers like it. Instead of relying on their conversational skills, they can count on talented performers to keep them entertained.

Food or music--which should get top billing? At two Valley restaurants I visited, I found two different answers. At Timothy's, the chef is good enough to work solo. At Leland's, on the other hand, the kitchen clearly plays second fiddle.

Recovering from a devastating fire, Timothy's reopened a few months ago. It's still got all the right music-club-decor touches: tables crowded together, jazz-themed art, dim lights and plumes of cigarette smoke snaking around the room. It also has Delphine Cortez deftly making her way through the repertoire of Cole Porter and George Gershwin.

The food is as ably presented as the music, sophisticated, inventive and tasty.

Check out the appetizer list. You won't see any potato skins, mozzarella sticks or Buffalo wings on it. You will see some cleverly fashioned nibbles that are as good to look at as they are to eat. Spring rolls with voodoo sauce are put together with gingered chunks of duck, veggies and sesame noodles, crammed inside crisp egg-roll wrappers. Then they're settled into a puddle of red-pepper ginger sauce, which is zipped up with a dash of sinus-clearing wasabi. This starter hits all the right notes.

So does the seafood tostada: bits of shrimp, crab and lobster in a crunchy corn tortilla, surrounded by an eye-catching swirl of sauces--green chile, red chile, goat cheese--whose colors could have jumped from an impressionist's palette. The menu calls this a "Painted Desert," and it's no exaggeration.

Meals come with both soup and salad. They serve two purposes: 1) Mealtime is extended, giving you an opportunity to hear more music. 2) They're a pleasure to consume. The salad is particularly noteworthy, mixed greens tossed with blue cheese, apples and walnuts in a lemony Dijon-mustard dressing. The clam chowder, though a little light on briny intensity, is redeemed by flavorful bits of bacon.

Entrees show unmistakable signs of imagination and ability. Carnivores with he-man appetites will appreciate the roast filet of beef, three tender medallions topped with blue cheese. The meat is moistened by a winy, rosemary-tinged sauce and accompanied by mounds of first-rate mashed potatoes and fresh green beans.

Moroccan rack of lamb is another way to enjoy large amounts of animal protein. It's superb: five succulent, gnaw-to-the-bone chops, embellished by a chutney of prickly pear and chile, served with a citrusy scoop of couscous and ratatouille.

Salmon is often the dullest item on a restaurant menu. Timothy's, though, knows how to jazz it up. The fillet, cooked to proper flaky specifications, arrives wrapped in phyllo dough, and comes gilded with corn salsa and spinach. An unexpected dash of slow-burning chile adds flavor harmony.

Grilled breast of duck, glazed with sesame, orange and ginger, sends out an irresistible blend of scents. The meat is wonderfully moist, and the zesty, curried lo mein side dish is just one more indication that the chef refuses to sleepwalk through his dinner performance.

Desserts don't miss a beat. The housemade tuxedo pie is a sweet way to finish up. It's a big, chewy chocolate truffle; creamy and rich. And there's no stinting on the cheese in the dense raspberry cheesecake. The only false note? It's the coffee, which tasted like it was brewed in the Jazz Age.

An evening at Timothy's is not cheap. While there's no cover, the price of entertainment has surely been factored into the menu. Two entrees, with shared appetizer and dessert, can run two people $55 to $65, before adding on drinks, tax and tip.

It's hard to find any bargains on the extensive wine list, either: $30 for a Beaujolais Villages is more than three times the retail price. I paid $50 for a bottle of Veuve Cliquot yellow label champagne at one of this town's ritziest restaurants. Here it's $72. And a bottle of Santa Rita "120" Merlot goes for $21; it's five bucks at local supermarkets.

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