State of mind

Pasatiempo - - RESTAURANT REVIEW -

The house-made pap­pardelle with ten­der rab­bit con­fit, tesa pork belly, and Parme­san is a cold-win­ter’s-night dish equally wel­come in late spring.

For co­me­di­ans — and those who fancy them­selves witty — pok­ing fun at hip, high-end restau­rants that em­pha­size lo­cally sourced, or­ganic in­gre­di­ents has be­come a pas­time akin to shoot­ing fish in a bar­rel (a phrase that sounds like it could be the name of a hot new eatery in it­self). Port­landia in par­tic­u­lar has skew­ered slow-food trucks, overly pre­cious movi­ethe­ater cui­sine, and ve­gan cafés to hi­lar­i­ous ends, and when I told some­one I was re­view­ing a new es­tab­lish­ment that boasts “ar­ti­sanal Amer­i­can dim sum,” she thought I was kid­ding around in the same vein. But I wasn’t, and for­tu­nately, State Cap­i­tal Kitchen isn’t ei­ther, in­stead adding a much-needed and sur­pris­ingly un­pre­ten­tious burst of creative en­ergy to the city’s fine-din­ing scene.

The restau­rant is si­t­u­ated on San­doval Street, cat­ty­corner from Talin Mar­ket, and the decor gives the first sign that you’ve crossed over into a high-con­cept food uni­verse with ar­ti­sanal flair. Ex­posed brick? Check. Re­claimed wood, edgy con­tem­po­rary art, and a de­tailed menu of pricey small plates and en­trees that em­ploys such ad­jec­tives as “spring-dug” and “rus­tic”? Check. The wait­staff breezily in­forms you to save room for what­ever sur­prises might ap­pear on the dim-sum cart, which one staff mem­ber wheeled around the din­ing room roughly once per hour dur­ing my two vis­its, of­fer­ing lower-priced ap­pe­tiz­ers for one or two peo­ple to share.

When those first small plates be­gin to ar­rive, a diner crack­ing wise about the place’s hip­ster hall­marks will most likely fall silent, made rapt by ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the big, briny fla­vor of a small plate of mus­sels en per­sil­lade and per­fectly grilled bread or the wood-smoky mystery of mush­room ragout on duck-liver toast. The house-made pap­pardelle with ten­der rab­bit con­fit, tesa pork belly, and Parme­san is a cold-win­ter’s-night dish equally wel­come in late spring, with hearty stew-ad­ja­cent fla­vors that re­spect the virtues of each in­gre­di­ent. A salad of jewel-like English peas and tangy rhubarb ac­com­pa­nied by frisée greens and a goat-cheese sor­bet pro­jected pure spring­time, made less suc­cess­ful by the some­what crys­tal­lized, not-very-creamy sor­bet and too-large pea shoots. As with much of the rest of the menu, though, I ad­mired the salad’s outré con­cep­tion.

The ar­rival of en­trées prompted ex­cited dis­cus­sion and re­quests for shared bites. The pork ten­der­loin takes gor­geous ad­van­tage of Asian in­flu­ences, adding a kim­chi puree, glis­ten­ing bok choy, a tasty dumpling, and a spike of pineap­ple for an in­spired and mem­o­rable com­bi­na­tion. The Wagyu strip loin came ac­com­pa­nied by a short-rib can­nel­loni along with a grilled en­dive and blue cheese fon­duta. The value of this dish lay in the sum of its parts, the fla­vors work­ing to­gether more than sep­a­rately. A com­pan­ion praised the unas­sum­ing sea­son­ing and es­sen­tial fla­vor of his lo­cal lamb sir­loin, along with its ac­com­pa­ny­ing mound of piñon-and-apri­cot stud­ded cous­cous.

One night I waited over an hour, past dessert time, for the vaunted dim-sum cart to ar­rive; another evening, it came just as we dug into our en­trees. No mat­ter what time some­one wheels it out, though, its con­tents are well worth a try. We were charmed by the in­ge­nu­ity of a moist chicken mole nes­tled in a crispy plan­tain cup, the sat­is­fy­ing crunch of nicely breaded and fried sweet­breads, and the sweet-and-sa­vory plump­ness of pro­sciutto-wrapped, blue-cheese-filled dates. It was clear from mur­murs and ex­cla­ma­tions around us that other ta­bles loved the sur­prise el­e­ment of the cart’s of­fer­ings, too.

The restau­rant may not be a prime venue for those who es­chew meat and fish. The menu of­fers only a few veg­e­tar­ian small plates and sal­ads but does in­trigu­ingly in­vite plant-based eaters to place their faith in the hands of chef Mark Connell, who pre­pares a meat-free en­tree to or­der based on avail­able mar­ket in­gre­di­ents. How­ever lo­cally sourced they may be, $29 is a lot to pay for veg­eta­bles alone, and the ve­gan plate of oys­ter mush­rooms, San­dia Moun­tain morels, as­para­gus, and car­rots, while beau­ti­fully pre­pared and sea­soned, didn’t live up to its price tag.

We all perked up when a strik­ing flotilla of desserts came to the ta­ble, punc­tu­at­ing SCK’s com­mit­ment to qual­ity and in­ven­tion. Hav­ing spot­ted a lo­cal cheese ex­pert at the bar, I asked him to rec­om­mend a cou­ple of op­tions from the chalk­board, which fea­tures a ro­tat­ing cast of wines and cheeses. His choices — the amber-col­ored, but­tery Stom­petoren Grand Cru Gouda and a creamy Tomme mixte cow-and-sheep cheese from the Pyre­nees — were a high­light of the meal. They made a strong coun­ter­part to the mul­tidi­men­sional choco­late bombe, which peeled away in cool science-project fash­ion when a server poured molten pis­ta­chio sauce over it to re­veal tart cherry ice cream and choco­late mousse.

All around us, din­ers were liv­ing it up — or­der­ing two and three items at a time, pour­ing more wine from the ex­cel­lent and oft-chang­ing list, mar­veling at the med­ley of un­ex­pected fla­vors. State Cap­i­tal Kitchen is a restau­rant that takes its in­gre­di­ents, along with its tal­ented chef’s innovation, very se­ri­ously, as well they — and we all — should.

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