State of mind
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.