Strike up the band

The Capitol's American melting-pot menu makes it cool to be a patriot

It strikes me as an exceptionally odd idea, in this day of the decline of the American system, to decide that the government would make a good theme for a restaurant. But there's The Capitol, rising suddenly like Reata out of the paved prairie that is North Dallas, complete with stars and painted dome.

Drive up to the valet stationed in the parking lot, and as he pulls your car into a space 20 feet away, you fear that the theme could be so complete as to include the redundancy, expense, and absurdity that is American government.

I say Reata, because the building sticks out like the big house in Giant, but there's nothing ranchy or rustic about this restaurant. High-ceilinged, columned, cream and white, with a wall-length burnished-wood bar, it's East-Coast looking, soothingly old-fashioned, very Virginian, easy on the eyes. It's nice to see something new that's so resolutely not hip or trendy. (There's nothing Italian about this place.)

Comfy booths, blue glassware (never refilled with water--I never thought I'd complain about that!), and big white plates offset any impression of formality, though. There are portraits of selected presidents on the wall: Jefferson stares out the front window; the dining room is presided over by Teddy and Abe. President (?) John Wayne--with an eyepatch--squints over the bar. Oh well, only the undeniably great are displayed in The Capitol. It's not as democratic as Highland Park Cafeteria, which unflinchingly displayed every last leader right up to George and Bill.

Of course, The Capitol is just a theme to hang an all-American melting pot menu on, like the America restaurants in New York and D.C. In this case, the name followed the menu's United States theme, and The Capitol serves the full 50 states' worth--Kentucky lamb loin chops, Alabama sweet potatoes, Alaskan salmon, Kansas City beef (as well as some items that are a little dubious, like Biloxi barbecued game hens--maybe I'm provincial, but I'd never heard that Biloxi was famous for its game hens, and I suspect alliteration, not provenance, was the inspiration for this particular dish). There's no Senate bean soup, which seems shocking, since it's the one government dish that everyone knows about. There's no election cake, either. Now there's an outdated dish--what's to celebrate?

The host's greeting was warm, and our server was refreshingly knowledgeable about the wine, which is divided on the list strictly by price. If you want to spend $24 on a bottle, you look at one section; if you can spend more, that's another column.

For starters, we tried low-country barbecue shrimp, barely cooked, in fact some not quite cooked, sautéed with tiny bits of ham ("Virginia country" ham, of course), served over grits stirred with Wisconsin cheddar cheese, with a spicy molasses barbecue sauce topped by a wheel of fried onions. This was the most expensive and probably the best appetizer we tried, although a grilled vegetable pie, which had no particular geographical affiliation, was good, too: impossibly thin slices of yellow squash, zucchini, and mushrooms, herbal in a rich pastry crust served with a balsamic-dressed salad. Pretty fabulous.

Another appetizer, called Cajun chicken and corn fritters, was Cajun in that they were spicy, fritters in that they were fried. Corn and chicken were in them, but there didn't much need to be since you couldn't really taste either. These were more like round hushpuppies and tasted mostly of corn meal, but they acted as delicious croutons to the mixed greens in mustardy vinaigrette and relish of tri-colored pepper dice and onion that garnished the plate.

I think we could all recite the next sentence together: entrées weren't as good as the appetizers. Yes, I say it almost every week. Some of these dishes didn't even sound appealing. Sweet potato salad? Peach tartar sauce? Somebody please wake me up. This does sound like government work--some Southern fruit and veg lobbyist getting the upper hand.

And it's hard to imagine a kitchen being "out" of lamb chops and Black Angus strip, both grill mainstays. But though it was hard to follow the appetizers' act, our entrées were all very good. The pork chop--two inches thick and blessedly rosy--was just a tad dry, but apple-onion marmalade, a meltingly sweet savory with a slap-in-the-mouth afterbite, juiced it up, and the mashed potatoes flecked with mushrooms (those would be Pennsylvania wild mushrooms) were a sexy, earthy makeover of the most homespun dish there is--almost breathtaking, like seeing Mom all decked out in strapless red sequins or something.

The special, called margarita shrimp, involved shrimp with sweet and sour mix, as I understand it, over angel-hair pasta with vegetables, and would have come off better as an appetizer. Once you ate the shrimp, there was an awful big plateful of noodles left. The Texas tenderloin, ordered instead of the KC strip, was nicely cooked, but lacking in flavor, as tenderloin often is. (That's my palate's prejudice, not the kitchen's mistake.) It came with Virginia ham hominy and "potato trio," although I only saw browned diced potato mixed into the hominy, a mixture that set off the beef very well.

James Beard, one of the pillars of American cookery, nevertheless acknowledged its "grotesqueries"; these result not only from youth but from the outrageously diverse minglings and adaptations. So for a long time, we were more likely to love Trader Vic's Polynesian pineapple-based dishes than true Oriental cuisine. The menu that chef Todd Hogan (from Johnson & Wales) has devised for The Capitol combines dishes and ingredients from all over: Wisconsin cheddar flavors Southern grits, Tennessee bourbon-cured pork comes with Pennsylvania mushroom-flavored potatoes, a salad comes with both Maytag blue cheese and Colorado honey, Maryland crab cakes come with California pepper relish. Sometimes it's hard to remember how young we are, culinarily speaking. Frontiers produce food that is functional, not aesthetic, and it's only recently that American civilization has aged enough to produce refined cuisine.

The thing that allowed it to happen relatively fast was the melting pot, which mixed together many ancient polished cuisines, such as French and Chinese (we won't mention the English). The Capitol's menu features the melting-pot culture filtered through geography, or is it regional traditions blended by modern mobility?

Anyway, another Capitol is due to open on McKinney Avenue in a few months. This, like the country, is a concept with a manifest destiny.

The Capitol, 15175 Quorum Drive, 980-7400. Open Monday-Thursday 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; Friday 11:30 a.m.-midnight; Saturday 5 p.m.-midnight.

The Capitol:
Low Country BBQ shrimp $7.95
Grilled vegetable & wild mushroom pie $5.95
Cajun chicken and corn fritters $5.95
Honey cured pork chop $14.95
Texas tenderloin $18.95

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