Musical Lairs

All That Jazz, 333 East Jefferson, Phoenix, 256-1437. Hours: Lunch, Tuesday through Friday, 11a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner, Tuesday through Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5p.m. to 1 a.m.

"The man that hath no music in himself," wrote the poet, "is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils. Let no such man be trusted."

There's no shortage of wisdom about music's uplifting charms. It can "soothe the savage breast"; it's the "food of love"; it's the "speech of angels." One strong-minded philosopher flatly states that "without music, life would be a mistake."

My own experience furnishes a somewhat less exalted insight: Music goes great with dinner. Good food plus good music can add up to a lot more than the sum of the parts.

A couple of new spots in town are banking on the idea that lots of folks share my attitude. Both All That Jazz and Azz Jazz Cafe are taking simultaneous aim at our ears and palates, looking to create sensory harmony. I can report that the weekend music at each place swings. But I'm not quite so unreservedly upbeat about the food.

If this were 1998, All That Jazz would be in a knockout downtown location, right between the new baseball stadium and America West Arena.

In 1995, however, the location is a good deal less than ideal. Blame ballpark construction, which is tearing up the area. My group had about as much trouble making our way here as Dorothy's group had getting to the Emerald City.

Once we arrived, however, we found ourselves in a genuinely attractive setting. All That Jazz tries to look as sophisticated as a Cole Porter tune sounds, and it pretty much succeeds.

There are cool black accents on the napkins and chairs. There are hammered-tin panels on the ceiling. Big windows run the length of the room. (One day, they'll look out over swarms of urban pedestrians. Now they look out over construction equipment.) The musicians perform in the far corner, visible and audible from every table in the restaurant.

Although the music we heard ran mostly to standards ("I Get a Kick Out of You," "Call Me Irresponsible"), the fare we ran into was anything but standard. All That Jazz is one of the few places in town that serves Caribbean food. It's a very clever concept, but it's a daunting one to execute. The only sea we're surrounded by is a saguaro one. And when we hear of something being "jerked," it's our legislature, not chicken, that first springs to mind.

You can get an initial taste of the islands from the Caribbean sampler, an appetizer platter that usually offers bites of four of the six menu starters--but the kitchen had inexplicably run out of plantains. A Caribbean restaurant running out of this staple is like a Chinese restaurant running short of rice. I suppose that's one of the hazards of operating in the desert Southwest.

I have another reason for wishing the plantains had shown up: The other three combo items didn't rise much above bar-food quality. The mozzarella sticks (what are they doing here?), chicken strips and jerked wings aren't nearly as zesty as the music.

Fortunately, the callaloo is. This intriguing West Indian broth is fashioned from pureed spinach and okra, and studded with bits of crab. Black-bean soup with bell pepper and tomato also seems like a better first-course option. Offbeat dinner rolls flavored with curry make good soup-dipping material.

The main dishes have two things going for them. First, price: Most are in the $15-to-$17 range, not bad considering that they come with entertainment. Second, size: I can't imagine anyone leaving here hungry.

Unfortunately, one thing the entrees don't have going for them is much hard-hitting Caribbean character. Perhaps the kitchen uses an extremely light hand with island spices because it doesn't want to scare off people unfamiliar with Caribbean tastes. I think that's a miscalculation. The food should sing; instead, it mostly hums.

The Bay Island red snapper illustrates this point. Two large slabs are deftly grilled, properly moist with a crisp edge. But the fish comes up short on the taste buds. I couldn't detect even a whiff of the promised orange sauce. Diners seeking the flavors of the Caribbean would be better off ordering a rum and Coke.

Port of Spain curry chicken has a great name. In my mind, I imagined an island of swaying palms, where gentle waves lap white-sand beaches. The menu description reinforced the reverie: "Caribbean chicken and savory potatoes in a Madras sauce served over saffron rice with a side of mango chutney and fried plantains." Alas, the dish itself couldn't sustain the vision. That's because it consisted of some blandly curried chunks of chicken and potatoes, with unexceptional rice and mushy black-eyed peas. Both the mango chutney and plantains were missing in action.

At $25, the Caribbean Sea Pepperpot is by far the most expensive option. You don't get shortchanged on quantity--there are enough fish and shrimp on this plate to make Shamu loosen his belt. But the seafood sits in a dull tomato broth with no distinctive island bite. After just a few forkfuls, you've more or less plumbed this dish's culinary depths.

Jerked prime rib, on the other hand, sported some genuine Caribbean flair. It was a massive, bone-in cut; the only defect was a higher-than-normal gristle-to-meat ratio. Side dishes of excellent sweet potatoes and greens provided a pleasant boost.

If the music and entrees don't tempt you to linger, maybe dessert will. Ignore the supplier-provided cakes and go straight for the homemade sweet-potato pie. It's absolutely smashing. I wish the rest of the food could have jump-started us the way this treat did.

I'm rooting for All That Jazz. It's the kind of place that can bring a taste of cosmopolitan sophistication to downtown Phoenix. Right now, it's got the courage of its musical convictions. I'd like to see it have the courage of its culinary convictions, too.

Azz Jazz Cafe, 1906 East Camelback, Phoenix, 263-8482. Hours: Dinner, Tuesday through Sunday, 5p.m. to 1a.m.

One of the problems I have with AzzJazz Cafe is that I'm not quite sure what its culinary convictions are.

Some of the dishes are holdovers from the restaurant's former South American incarnation, when it was called Evita's. Among these are empanadas, sausage with chimichurri sauce, and filet mignon in a sherry cream sauce. Other items, including escargots and shrimp scampi, suggest a continental touch. Shrimp cocktail and prime rib, on the other hand, sound like typical American fare. This is not what I'd call a craftily constructed menu.

A couple of Evita's distressing practices persist in its new jazz-cafe form. One is the staff's refusal to replace used forks and knives with clean ones. It's not very classy to clear a plate and reset the table with food-smeared cutlery. A second continuing problem is the bread--a mushy, over-the-hill loaf that doesn't even meet thrift-store standards.

Azz Jazz Cafe certainly has the right look, however. It's done up in basic black, from the tablecloths to the music notes hanging from the lights. The performers, perched between the bar and the dining area, are almost close enough to touch from any seat in the house.

The food isn't quite as snazzy as the setting. The musicians don't play old-fashioned snoozers like "On the Banks of the River Wabash." So why does the kitchen send out yawn-inducing appetizers like artichoke dip and peel-and-eat shrimp, which date from approximately the same era? The salmon mousse, oddly served in a cup and accompanied by tortilla chips, is more bizarre than trendy. I can't imagine it receiving anything more than polite applause.

A salad course arrives between appetizer and entree. You can profitably use this interval to concentrate on the music.

Happily, most of the main dishes are good enough to reclaim your attention. Best of all, by far, is the pork: two small medallions embellished with apples, raisins and walnuts, set in cognac sauce. Teamed with twice-baked potatoes, it's a tasty platter.

Filet mignon flambe isn't too far behind. I enjoyed it at Evita's, and I enjoyed it here: a soft piece of tenderloin, topped with mushrooms and smoothed with a creamy sherry sauce. But I couldn't get too enthusiastic over the routine scoop of rice that furnished the starch. The plate also cries out for some veggies.

Tournedos of chicken boursin is a little more problematical. First, you have to get past the ridiculous name (tournedos of chicken?), as well as the expectation that you're going to encounter any boursin cheese. You also have to get past the presentation, which seems to be modeled on the World Trade Center's twin towers.

However, once you forget about what it's called and close your eyes to its looks, you'll probably appreciate the column of chicken breast, artichoke and mushrooms set on a bready "crouton," doused with brandy sauce. The number of boring chicken dishes in this town is almost beyond counting. Thankfully, this isn't one of them.

Trout is disappointing. The taste isn't subtle; it's nonexistent. An uninspired wine sauce doesn't help.

Desserts are strictly "why bother?" The made-elsewhere cheesecake, the indifferent homemade flan and the white-chocolate mousse that tastes like cafeteria pudding will send you home singing the blues.

As we were leaving Azz Jazz Cafe, the proprietor searched out the women in our group, grabbed their hands and pressed his lips to them. It's a nice touch. Now he needs to face the music, and press his attention to tuning up some of the fare.

All That Jazz:
Bay Island
red snapper
Sweet-potato pie

Azz Jazz Cafe:
Artichoke dip
of pork
Filet mignon flambe


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