People often ask food critics: What’s the best restaurant? It’s incredibly frustrating because this question is almost impossible to answer. It’s like asking someone to pick a favorite pair of shoes. Shoes for what? Dancing, golfing, hiking or looking devastatingly sexy? The better question would be more specific: What’s the best place for really hot red chile, the best pad Thai, a cheap lunch downtown, the prettiest patio, a restaurant where no one will mind if the kids run around or the best place to celebrate a special occasion (especially if someone else is paying)?

Well, if I had an occasion to celebrate this week, I'd ask you to take me to State Capital Kitchen (500 Sandoval St., 467-8237). The food is creative and interesting, the atmosphere is relaxed and charming, and the service is lavish and pampering. It's perfect for making someone feel special, but the food is so good that it can turn a regular Tuesday night into an occasion.

This is what I'm talking about: Almost all of the tables were full when my date and I showed up about 15 minutes early for a 7:30 reservation one recent night, so we were invited to have a seat in a cozy banquette in the foyer. Sitting on a low table in front of us was a tray holding a bottle of bubbly and a dozen flutes. They must be expecting a party, we thought.

Then a cheery server came by and offered us some cava. She popped the cork and filled two glasses, and we toasted to a much-needed kid-free date night—but then I had a pang of paranoia: Do they recognize me? Do they know I'm here to write a review? Why else would we get this special treatment?

For the first half of the evening, I was sure I'd somehow been found out. Why else would all these people be so attentive, so nice? What else could possibly motivate the bartender to leave his perch and swing by our table, pick up some dirty plates and refill our water glasses?

Over the course of the meal, though, we came to believe we weren't being treated any differently. Other tables seemed to get the same level of attention: kind and knowledgeable, indulgent but not obsequious.

State Capital Kitchen offers unusually good service and the food to match. The menu is full of dishes that present familiar ingredients in novel ways, such as a plate of perfectly bronzed scallops that came plated with soft pillows of ravioli filled with foie gras ($33). Cooking melts the filling so that a fork, piercing the pillow's exterior, causes a minor geyser of molten foie gras to erupt on the plate.

It's fun to pop the foie gras balloons. By the third ravioli, however, one does wonder whether the best use of foie gras is having it Jackson Pollock all over a plate and leaving a diner to mop it up with pieces of ravioli that are not particularly absorbent.

(A similar trick is employed with more success in the exploding passion fruit balls from the dessert menu: bite-sized alabaster spheres of white chocolate that immediately melt to release a burst of sweet-citrusy passion fruit liquid. They are marvelous.)

A generously sized starter of duck liver toast involved a thick schmear of mild, smooth liver. The nest of frisée that topped the toasts was a surprisingly good foil for the richness of the liver. And the mushroom ragout topping was very tasty, although camouflaged on the similarly colored liver. We only wished that the toasts were thinner and toastier.

A simple green salad was exceptionally good, with big pieces of beautiful baby lettuce lightly dressed and topped with a quenelle of chèvre ($9). My date wished the cheese were spread all over the salad, but I liked spearing a few leaves and then dragging them through the soft chèvre.

The chicken roulade ($29) was remarkably moist inside, maybe because it was wrapped with crispy chicken skin. It came with a golden shredded potato cake that tasted as if it were made by someone who admires McDonald's hash browns but wanted to make a real version.

The restaurant bills itself as "artisanal American dim sum," and a cart does come around the dining room to offer small plates. The night we were there, the cart didn't seem to come around often enough to count on it for making a full, timely meal, but do not miss sampling its delights as a supplement to whatever else you order. Prosciutto-wrapped dates filled with blue cheese offered a sweet-salty pop. Deep-fried bites of brandade had a mild flavor and silky texture not often found in a dish made from dried fish. And delicately deep-fried quail legs were delicious, dipped in a thick red curry sauce tinged with vanilla. The plates are small, but so are their prices (all under $10).

It may take serious effort, but do try to save room for one of the clever desserts. The chocolate sphere is an orange-sized brown globe that transforms as the server pours a warm pistachio sauce over it, causing the top to melt away and reveal a filling of chocolate mousse and cherry ice cream ($9). It's a big dessert, and the flavors are almost overwhelmingly intense, but it's worth it for the presentation and fun of discovering the contents.

The "experience" factor here is high, and that makes SCK a worthy destination, but it wouldn't be successful if the presentations weren't backed up with high-quality local ingredients so skillfully prepared. How many literal explosions (foie gras, passion fruit, chocolate bombe) are too many for one meal? As a gimmick, maybe it gets old, but thankfully the kitchen doesn't rely on just these technical surprises.

We left feeling like we'd overindulged, but we wouldn't have wanted to miss anything that came to the table. For $125, we had two starters, two mains, one big dessert and two dessert bites, plus three plates from the dim sum cart and two glasses of wine. Looking at the bill later, it appeared that the server forgot to charge us for the dim sum, but the options change nightly and run $2-$6. It was a lot of food for the money and made more worth it by the inventive food and indulgent service. It's a good value for such an enjoyable experience.


AT A GLANCE:
Open:
5-9 pm Tuesday-Thursday, 5-10:30 pm
Friday-Saturday, closed Sunday and Monday
Best Bet:
Tidbits from the dim sum cart
Don't Miss:
Exploding passion fruit balls