Eating Out: The state of excitement

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DAKOTA

127 Ledbury Road, Notting Hill, London W11 2AQ. Tel: 0171 792 9191. Open Monday to Sunday from noon to 11.30pm. Average a la carte price, pounds 15 to pounds 20 per person. Major credit cards accepted

I HAD almost as much trouble tracking down Dakota in my atlas as I did locating the restaurant of the same name in Notting Hill Gate. I was hampered in the first instance by having a distinctly shoddy grasp of American states and their whereabouts, not helped at all by the minimalism of my schoolgirl's Modern Home Atlas which is anything but modern.

Dakota the restaurant is on the corner of Ledbury Road and Talbot Road which should, in theory, have made it easy enough to find. Unfortunately I forgot the Talbot Road part, and searched high and low among the smart antique and designer shops at the other end of the street. We then drove past Dakota twice, on the assumption that it was just another pub in the process of being done up. The buff exterior looked half-baked, as if there were more details to be added, and since workmen were busily doing workmanlike things outside, we didn't give it a second glance. Finally, we noticed the rather too discreet lettering.

Dakota the restaurant is the three-month-old baby sister of Montana in Fulham Road and, as my job-share reviewer Hugh mentioned last week, they stand as the sole representatives of serious modern American cooking in London, more's the pity. Hugh was lucky enough to dine at Mesa Grill in New York recently, one of the flag bearers of the indigenous stateside cuisine and sang its praises to high heaven. His opinion of the two London siblings is less ecstatic.

Many years ago, on my first trip to New York, I was taken to a restaurant called Arizona 2000 and I remember being utterly bowled over by the sheer exuberance of the cooking and the colours on the plate. How would Dakota fare against my hallowed memories?

Let me say instantly that I loved the food, and even if it is not as superbly executed as it may be across the Atlantic, the smouldering smoky flavours piled high with notes of sharp and soft, savoury and sweet, are terrifically exciting to one who is not subjected to them week in, week out. Unfortunately, the restaurant is let down by the almost total absence of diners. They'd better do something quickly about the unfinished look of the exterior.

The Dakota menu has nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with Tex-Mex, tacky hamburgers or hot-dogs. No, the kind of thing we're talking about here is far more interesting than that, based on a host of indigenous ingredients, and the sink-or-swim culinary inheritance of the New-World melting pot. So you will find oodles of chillies with names like pasilla, ancho and chipotle, combined with corn, squashes, black bean and soft- shelled crabs. There are home-grown dishes built in, too: cajeta (milk boiled down to a sticky sweet toffee), Shaker cakes, Navajo flat bread (delicious and slightly chewy, tingling mildly with chilli, and decorated with charred bubbles from the griddle) and, of course, the world famous Caesar salad.

Black bean soup is another American hot number, culled again from the south. Dakota's version is so fiery with chillies that I had to ask for extra soured cream to cool it down. With that soothing ingredient stirred in, I could taste the singing, satisfying beans. To be frank, this bowlful on its own, with a big wedge of soft Mexican spoonbread (fresh and warm with a tender, golden cornmeal crumb), would have done me just fine for lunch all on its own.

My friend Sally was also facing a gargantuan first course of grilled pumpkin and grilled polenta (cornmeal again, but flavoured with jalapeno peppers), with morsels of Jerusalem artichokes, excellent American goats' cheese, and a smoked tomato oil. Orange annato oil (the stuff that is used, as it happens, to colour our own Red Leicester) was splattered Pollock style over the rim of the large plate. She had no difficulty making impressive inroads, delighted with the combinations of perfectly grilled tender vegetables, against the green of rocket leaves.

The big house salad changes daily and is, I couldn't help thinking, something of a misnomer. It turned out to be a crab and red emperor fish cake, surrounded by a ring of slightly overcooked scallops, perched on a mound of salad leaves that bore a close resemblance to the previous course's helping of greenery. Sally, however, seemed not to be complaining about this either. I thought the fish cake was on the dull and muddy side. Why not stick with pure crab, since the Americans are so very good at crab cakes, and jettison other distractions? The Pollockation of the plate was even more interesting with something purple-red joining the annato oil. Our adorable waitress thought that it looked like a hair dye she favoured a while back, but soon found out for us that it was nothing more disturbing than beetroot oil.

I nervously ordered the soft-shell crab sandwich. Last time I ate soft- shell crabs they were chewy-shelled, damp and none too pleasant. This one restored their good name, with its crisp coating of cornmeal, juicy interior, and two merry companions in the form of a mayonnaise redolent of fruity ancho chillies, and oozing sweet chilli jam. Notable, too, were the freshly-made root vegetable crisps - curls of brown- orange carrot, sweet potato (I think) and old-fashioned, ordinary potatoes.

Puddings included, inevitably, a Pecan pie, but with the less predictable addition of white chocolate. We took the lighter option (we thought) with a buttermilk bavarois that turned out to be unimaginably rich. Flecked with seeds of vanilla, it was as plumped up and luxurious as a goose-down cushion. Surrounding it was a moat of syrup in which fishes of roast quince slices were swimming.

Funnily enough, this seemed like a peculiarly English kind of a pudding, but who am I to quibble? After all, our old-fashioned dishes have every bit as much right to form part of the American culinary heritage as the pecorino shavings on the Caesar salad or the poached eggs and spinach of the Eggs Florentine.

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