Ennui and Upward

Timothy Michael's Hideaway, 2999 North 44th Street, 602-667-3001. Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.

"There once was a lady named Anne, who thought she came from Iran. But she got on a camel, and . . ."

I crane my neck, trying not to appear too obvious as I eavesdrop on a group a few tables away. We're at Timothy Michael's Hideaway, and a nearby dinner guest is entertaining her friends with a limerick.

". . . and . . . and . . . Oh, shoot, I can't remember the rest."

I almost fall out of my chair. She can't do this! I glare at the would-be jokester, but she is oblivious to her torture, and falls greedily back to her pasta and wine. Her friends don't seem at all concerned by the lyrical tease; they simply shrug and chuckle and continue to wolf down their meals.

I return to my plate of swordfish, muttering darkly under my breath. ". . . and she sat in enamel, and sealed her butt up with sand." No, that can't be it.

I'm barely halfway through my entree and I'm not overly full, but somehow the thrill is gone. It's good fish, mind you, nice fish, and while it's certainly not been ruined by my neighbor's comedic incompetence, I sigh and push the plate away. Here is yet another meal destined for a doggie bag.

At home later, I pick at the remains of the seafood and ponder what caused my sudden lack of interest. It's an ample hunk of fresh swordfish (catch of the day, $18.95), grilled and dressed in buttery-wine genevoise-style. The accompanying rice pilaf is admirably al dente, and an oriental stir fry of red onion, carrot, celery and mushroom suits well enough. Yet the sauce is undeniably gloppy, its only spark from fresh artichoke hearts and too few capers. It's a dish that, like the limerick, seems incomplete.

The fish is banished to the refrigerator, packed in among several other boxes of leftover Timothy Michael's entrees. Will I ever finish them? I really don't know.

So why, then, do I like the restaurant so much? What is it -- besides the demands of my job -- that prompts me to return to this Hideaway in the dome-capped Concord Place building at Thomas and 44th Street?

It occurs to me that the failed story of Anne and her camel nicely summarizes my ambivalence.

After all, the setup to this contemporary American cuisine is promising, and its presentation is engaging, but it falls flat at the punch line. I start out excited; I want to love it all, but alas, the climax eludes me.

With just the slightest tweaking, this restaurant could be wonderful. Timothy Michael's Hideaway is the brainchild of two seasoned pros: manager Timothy Perkins and Chef Michael Hodgins, both formerly of Scottsdale's Ancala Country Club.

Nestled in the former Raffaelle's Italian restaurant space, the little eatery, open since December, certainly is hidden. A tiny sign directs traffic into the commercial parking center, but beware: that welcoming canopy you see crowns a delivery entrance. The real front door is around the bend, facing a spacious patio anchored by splashing fountains. What a lovely escape in a neighborhood ringed by fast-food dives, revival malls and personal-injury law offices.

My dining companion and I could spend many blissful hours on the patio, mesmerized by the upbeat live jazz that rocks the joint on Friday nights. It's a wonderful spot to enjoy hot coffee and dessert, even if the sweet selections feature only mainstream items like tiramisu, crème brûlée, New York cheesecake and Chocolate Decadence Cake. Timothy Michael's bakes its own desserts, so maybe, when the owners put in place their plans for jazz more nights a week, we'll see some creative treats.

We've come on a chilly evening, however, so we huddle indoors, tapping our feet for rhythm and warmth. Management has a difficult choice tonight -- close the floor-to-ceiling French doors and block off the music, or let us shiver. Ah well, I ch-ch-chatter to my c-c-companion, I think I hear the tinkling of ice cubes in the half-frozen fountains outside, and it does add a certain musical flair.

Besides, it takes bitter cold to unleash the restorative passion of a good, hot soup, and how often do we find that in Phoenix? Gratefully, we slurp deliciously blistering shrimp and okra bisque, velvety and stocked with small, firm crustaceans. Less satisfying is the salty pancetta and white bean soup, more tepid in a thin broth flecked with carrot (daily soup, $4.50).

I love the setting indoors. The compact, clubby room literally glows with candle-watt lighting that prompts my dining companion to comment on the sparkle in my eyes (and on the icicle dangling from my nose). There isn't a bad seat in the house, with well-spaced white-draped tables angled for optimum privacy and shy handholding. Add a soft throw rug and a roaring fireplace, and I'd spend as many nights curled up here as management would allow.

Much of Timothy Michael's charm is in its intimacy, so it's off-putting when we're confronted by aloof service. The often-slower opening months of a restaurant are the perfect opportunity for a chef to establish the warm, fuzzy feel that embraces a neighborhood place like this. In fact, on one evening, Chef Michael does come out to sign a cookbook for a guest at an adjacent table, but he ignores us. Given that on all our visits the place is half-empty, wouldn't he take the opportunity to schmooze and make new friends?

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