Tracey MacLeod hits the Santa Fe trail. Photographs by Matthew Mawson
The advance publicity for Dakota promised such a profusion of fashionable elements that it was hard to know how to play it, wardrobe- wise. Should one dress down, in honour of the restaurant's location at the bohemian end of Notting Hill? Dress Western, as a cute nod to the food, which is inspired by the American south-west? Or go for basic designer black, to blend in with the "celebrities and high-profile people involved in media, fashion, art and music" who would, apparently, be hosting tables at Dakota in the first weeks after it opened?

In the end, the choice was taken out of our hands by the fact that we went on the coldest night in December, when woolly hats and Puffa jackets were the only sensible option. Arriving in the midst of a blizzard, it was a bit disconcerting to be presented with a menu that revolved around such summery specialities as Oaxacan lentil salad, jalapeno jelly and soft-shell crabs. But with a couple of margaritas and some delectable chilli-flavoured cornbread inside us, we were soon ready for the Santa Fe trail.

Dakota opened in early December and seems to be doing well - I failed to get a booking on my first attempt. It's situated on the cusp of Notting Hill and Westbourne Park, in a corner-site pub conversion that has already housed some short-lived failures, most recently, Kassoulet. Redesigned along feng shui principles, the dining-room will come into its own in the summer, with tall windows and a high ceiling giving it an airy feel, even in December. The walls are in desert colours of sand and terracotta, the furniture is in natural woods, and the staff are in muted blues and buffs - "Muji colours", as my companion, Clare, put it.

Touches of Americana range from the subtle - a Georgia O'Keeffe-style flower mural in the stairwell - to full-on Yosemite Park, in the form of a giant stockade made out of tree trunks which separates the kitchen from the dining room. "God, it's amazing - it feels like we're in America, but I can smoke," Clare marvelled, as she fired up the first of the evening's many Marlboro Lites, and wrestled with the hefty menu bound in branded plywood.

Dakota, like its sister restaurant, Montana, in Fulham, offers the kind of south-western fusion food that is very big in the States, but hasn't really caught on here yet. A superior version of Tex Mex, it features lots of marinating and char-grilling of fish and meat, interesting use of humble ingredients like black beans, pumpkin and okra, and an emphasis on flavoured oils, salsas, chillis and lime.

Just reading the menu was enough to make Clare start to turn into an American. Her vowels lengthened, and she began to refer to the starters as "appetisers". "I'm gonna go for a seafood combo," she drawled, ordering char-grilled prawns to start, followed by an entree - sorry, main course - of soft-shell crabs. My starter of tequila-cured mahi mahi in a blue- corn tostada took me slightly by surprise, as I hadn't expected the fish to be served raw. Tasted alone, it was drab and overly salty, but once I'd loaded it up with the accompanying pineapple salsa, black beans and sour cream, it exploded into life. Clare's char-grilled prawns came with black-eyed peas and a red pepper salsa, spicy and bursting with taste, like a large mouthful of sunshine.

We had planned to test Dakota's convictions by asking for an American- style doggy bag to take away any uneaten food, but as we'd practically licked our plates, we realised this wasn't going to be an option. I wondered if they'd let us take away a bag of someone else's leftovers instead. Scanning the room for signs of high-profile people, I was rewarded by a possible sighting of the fashion designer Ally Capellino dining a deux in the corner, and the gallery owner, Kasmin, in trademark brush-cut and specs. "You're good at spotting celebrities, aren't you," said Clare, disdainfully. "It's one of the things you can do."

Our main courses, like our starters, came on plates splashed with Jackson Pollock-like loops of spiced oil. Clare's soft-shell crabs had an alien- run-over-by-a-steamroller look that was offputting, and as soon as she tasted one, she panicked. "The spicing is subtle, but the seafood taste is too hard-core for me. It's like I've fallen into a rock pool." But she loved the accompanying okra and intensely sweet cherry tomatoes, which came dusted with cornmeal and basil, and her side-dish of arugula salad, with its zingy lime dressing.

I ordered grilled Iowa rib-eye steak because it was the first day of the Government's beef-on-the-bone ban and I'm very counter-suggestible. Tender and smoky, it came with a pile of onion rings in a light and crunchy buttermilk batter, and something called chimichurri sauce, a mintier version of salsa verde. As we ate, the footballer Lee Chapman and his actress wife Lesley Ash passed us on their way to a nearby table. "This steak might come in useful if she gets another black eye later on," I whispered. But Clare had gone rigid at the sight of the cartoonishly handsome Chapman. "I get really excited whenever I see a footballer," she hissed. "Now he's my idea of A-list."

We were joined for pudding by our friend, Richard, who has just moved back to Notting Hill after years of living in New York, and who, therefore, understands what Dakota is all about. "It's simple, it's comfy, it's modern - I like it," he said, surveying the now-buzzing room. "But the waiters aren't cute enough, and the other customers are a bit homely. They need a few anorexic, round-shouldered girls and some gay boys wearing velvet." His pecan pie was fairly standard-issue, and he left a wedge of crust, but it wasn't something we felt we could have asked them to make up into a doggy bag.

Clare's buttermilk bavarois slipped down creamily, and my perfectly steamed chocolate pudding came in a round ball like a miniature Christmas pud, topped with a summery simulacrum of a holly sprig in the form of redcurrants and mint leaves. Our friendly waitress also brought us a sample of home- made avocado ice-cream to try, which had the same paint-like aroma as the green-tea ice-cream served in Japanese restaurants.

Paying the pounds 124 bill, which included a bottle of Frog's Leap Sauvignon and three catch-up cocktails for Richard, we agreed we'd be happy to return, even if prices were on the steep side for a neighbourhood restaurant, particularly one in such a mixed neighbourhood. There are cheaper ways to do Dakota, with a tempting weekend brunch offering spiced pecan waffles and huevos rancheros, and a basement cocktail bar where you can drop by for a tequila slammer and a salad. A word of warning, though: if someone offers to valet-park your car when you arrive, don't accept. This is one American-style service that Dakota doesn't offer yet

Dakota, 127 Ledbury Road, London W11 2AQ (0171-792 9191). Lunch 12pm- 3.30pm (Sat-Sun brunch). Dinner Mon-Thurs 7pm-11pm, Fri, Sat 7pm-11.30pm, Sun 7pm-10.30pm. Restricted wheelchair access. All major cards accepted, except Diner's

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