Ennui and Upward

Whoever selected the wine list surely was thinking of me. How nice to see some bargain-priced selections from Australia and Chile (Chile's smooth Lapostolle Chardonnay is a delight at $5 a glass/$22 a bottle). The taste isn't much different than our California wines, but the cost is more palatable -- we treat ourselves to an entire bottle.

We're further cheered with the arrival of warm, crusty bread homemade in Michael's kitchen. Slathered with butter and silky garlic-kissed hummus, it disappears in a flurry of crumbs.

By the time appetizers arrive, we're already as content as cats, fat and happy with good wine, music and buttered loaf. That's purring, not our stomachs rumbling, as we dig into portobello pie ($6.75) and a calamari special. Even without having stuffed ourselves with bread, we would fall silent in prospect of finishing these massive portions. I excavate a tangy mantle of tomato, pancetta, arugula and roasted red peppers to unveil a meaty mushroom stuffed with Montrachet (soft goat cheese) -- luscious bite after bite after bite. Calamari, too, is so tender and well-treated that we nibble the lightly breaded squidlets long after we're satiated, spiking a taste of chopped tomato here, a leaf of lemon-squeezed lettuce there.

Another evening, we pretend to be elegant and ignore the breadbasket. It pays off, as thick hunks are later required to sop up the wonderful Chardonnay liqueur pooled under a charitable mound of New Zealand green mussels ($7.25). The slightly sweet, ever-so-slightly-tough bivalve is excellent, but I'm content to soak up just its broth, rich with lots of garlic and finely chopped concasse tomatoes. Yummy crab and wild mushroom gratinee ($8.25) is another favorite starter, scooped up with crispy grilled bruschetta. It's creamy, Asiago-cheesy, sherry-rich and heavy with Maryland lump crab.

It's a head-scratcher, then, that Timothy Michael's blows it on the simplest appetizer of all -- T.M. skewers ($8.95). The jumbo pieces of shrimp, beef and pork tenderloin are ably grilled but verging on tasteless. Perhaps I caught cold on that first visit: cilantro sesame and black bean sauces are so completely bland that I question the veracity of my taste buds.

As a surprising freebie, Timothy Michael's entrees come with salad -- remember when we would be outraged to pay extra for a plate of lettuce? TM's take is a pleasing mix of torn greens, red pepper and tomato in a light, oily Montrachet vinaigrette. Search out the subtle undertones of tangy cheese, and rejoice when the kitchen is generous with kicky peppercorns.

My companion and I are justly giddy in anticipation of our entrees; we stretch and lick our paws clean for a feast to follow. What we're given is pleasant, but not great. It's pretty, but not gorgeous. It's clever, but, well, you know.

Jamaican jerk chicken ($13.95) brings half a Rubenesque bird, roasted crispy and tarted up with apricot chutney. Seasoning is lightly applied, reminiscent of Jamaican shake 'n' bake, but we miss the fiery kiss that is this Caribbean hallmark. Tenderloin of beef Saratoga ($18.95) is grilled perfectly medium-rare, almost purple in its brilliance. Sliced and served on wilted arugula with fluffy mashed potatoes and grilled zucchini, it's a lovely dish, but it would be magical if ladled with a lot more of its delicate garlic-herb potato cream sauce.

Submissive seasoning also hinders Scampi on the Bayou ($16.50) and rack of lamb ($22.95). Jumbo shrimp, while on the verge of overcooked, are tasty enough in their bath of garlic butter, fresh lemon and Creole sauce. Zipping up the Creole sauce would be so easy, however, and so effective. The Colorado domestic lamb is simply okay, infused with strong mint that needs a more robust glacé to temper it. Its Dijon crusting is timid under three-onion marmalade, and for once, my dining companion doesn't finish one of his favorite dishes.

I find more to like in the crab and shrimp ravioli ($9.95 appetizer/$15.95 entree). The foundation is dainty herb pasta, actually sheets of dough topping teaspoons of seafood instead of traditional ravioli pockets. I snake bites from my dining buddy, relishing every bit of tasty crab, shrimp and shallot and in a piquant Asiago, tomato and basil cream sauce.

While I label the 14-ounce "New Yorker" steak ($19.95) a bit chewy, its shallot and green-peppercorn sauce flat, I am alone in my judgment. As my dining companion points out, I crave bolder flavors and challenging spices. He is content with the basic, tender meat and mashed potatoes. Perhaps this is why I doggie-bag half my bourbon glazed salmon ($15.95), too. I like the grilled fish and its interesting glaze of maple syrup and Jack Daniel's Sourmash reduction. It's simply just not special enough to shine.

There's no question that, once the word gets out, Timothy Michael's is going to be a local hot spot. It's comfortable, convenient, and competent -- all things to all people. Just bring your own punch line.

New Times restaurant critic Carey Sweet has been writing about food and dining in the Valley for 10 years. Contact her at 602-744-6558 or at carey.sweet@newtimes.com

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