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?

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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