Ambiance Chasers

On the other hand, remember, you are getting a complete-evening package of topnotch food and entertainment. Whatever you're singing when you leave Timothy's, I don't think it will be the blues.

Leland's Dixieland Jazz Restaurant, 37433 North Cave Creek Road, Cave Creek, 488-4094. Hours: Lunch, Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Dinner, Tuesday through Sunday, 5 to 9 p.m.

"Without music," wrote the philosopher Nietzsche, "life would be a mistake." He must have figured this out after a toe-tapping evening at Leland's got his blood stirring.

It's impossible to sit through a set of Leland's five-piece Dixieland-jazz group--banjo, drums, bass, trumpet, clarinet--without coming away believing that life is good. The Generation LXers who filled the place--most looked like they carried pictures of their grandchildren--certainly couldn't contain themselves. I understood their enthusiasm; the music was enormous fun. I just wish the food had been as thoroughly entertaining as the music.

About five years old, Leland's has the welcoming feel of a homey cottage. Dark beams run along an A-frame ceiling. Abstract paintings (for sale) line the whitewashed walls. The tables are set with maroon tablecloths and inexpensive silverware.

Appetizers? Why bother? I can't imagine the kitchen staff knocking itself out over "potato boats" stuffed with cheese and bacon or a plate of smoked salmon with cream cheese, chopped egg, capers and onion. The only other starter, chicken strudel, looked moderately interesting in comparison, at least initially. But it didn't turn out very impressively. The menu promised a "delicate blend of herbs, cheese, breast of chicken and peppers in a flaky pastry." What showed up, however, was a gloppy mess of minced who-knows-what oozing out of dried-out pastry dough.

The best thing about the soup or salad that comes before the entree? It permits you to give your undivided attention to the musicians. Surely, nothing in the routine cream of broccoli soup or snoozy salad is diverting enough to deflect your interest in the performers. Use the serviceable bake-and-serve rolls to tamp down hunger pangs while you wait for the main dishes to arrive.

Fortunately, some entrees help get the meal on track. As you might expect, the kitchen does best with the simplest preparations.

Check out the salmon, for example. No, it doesn't come encrusted with phyllo dough and burnished with corn salsa, like its counterpart at Timothy's. But it is a perfectly poached slab of fillet, delicately seasoned with herbs and wine. The portion is more than ample, too. Steamed broccoli and cauliflower, seasoned only by Cave Creek air, provide a low-calorie accompaniment.

Tournedos may have a fancy name, but they're nothing more than two thick medallions of beef tenderloin. Leland's beef is reasonably tender, and gets coated with the mildest of bearnaise sauces. At $21.95, it's the priciest entree, but it's also reliable.

Shrimp Veracruz starts out right: nine firm, good-size critters sauteed in garlic butter and perked up with onions and peppers. But the pasta Alfredo we chose to accompany them (rice and baked potato are the other side-dish options) fell completely flat--a lifeless clump of gummy noodles with no discernible taste or texture.

Roast duck just couldn't seem to carry a tune, especially compared to Timothy's knockout model. First of all, Leland's hasn't secured the world's meatiest specimens. My half-bird was way too scrawny. Then, the kitchen compounded the problem by cooking it to death. The result? Dried-out duck. A nifty cherry-brandy sauce did its best to revive the creature, but irreversible damage had already been done. An out-of-the-box rice pilaf doesn't do much to improve the platter, either.

Desserts also suggest that Leland's musicians work harder than the cooks. Leland's farms out the dessert course to a supplier, whose Key lime pie and peanut butter mousse cake won't earn any cries of "Encore."

Like Timothy's, Leland's also figures the price of music into its menu. By ordering very judiciously (no appetizer, splitting dessert and ordering less expensive "light fare" or chicken entrees), a couple could get out of here for as little as 35 bucks, before drinks, tax and tip. If you're into foot-stomping Dixieland jazz, that's not a bad deal.

Timothy's:
Duck spring rolls
with voodoo sauce
$5.95
Moroccan
rack of lamb
23.95
Grilled breast of duck
24.95
Tuxedo pie
6.00

Leland's Dixieland
Jazz Restaurant:
Chicken strudel
$6.75
Shrimp Veracruz
17.95
Poached salmon
20.95
Roast duck
21.25

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