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.

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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