DAKOTA

1777 Columbia Rd. NW. 265-6600. Open: Sunday through Thursday 6 p.m. to midnight, Friday and Saturday 6 p.m. to 1 a.m. Closed Monday. AE, MC, V. Reservations suggested. No separate non-smoking section. Complimentary valet parking before 7:30 p.m. Prices: appetizers $4.50 to $6.25, entrees and picnic platters $7 to $14.25. Full dinner with drinks or wine, tax and tip about $25 to $40 a person.

here is a restaurant in here somewhere.

Dakota is a club. It is a disco. It is a design statement. It is a singles bar with big-screen entertainment.

Out front is a large, bold banner pointing the way to the restaurant; inside is a podium with a hostess or two. Behind that is a dance floor, then a bar, and finally a restaurant, a small restaurant at the back of this splashy maze, made larger by the clever use of mirrors.

Dakota is a dazzle of impressions, part haut ash-can school of design, part deco- postmodern hybrid. There are enchanting things on the walls, delightful china in pinks and greens, trendy granite-textured laminated table tops. The waitresses are punk-shorn and blonded. The menu is multi-purple and free-form. Life is not serious here, it is fun.

Of course, it probably wasn't fun when the highly touted chef left, but Dakota seems to have weathered that setback, and the food is back on track. It is probably making life even more fun for its customers by including an early fixed-priced dinner for $14.75, with such choices as soft-shell crabs and sliced prime steak. And it has added a "picnic" category to the menu. Picnic platters are somewhere between a sandwich and an entree and cost $7 to $9.75, or just over half the price of the regular entrees.

Dakota has a small menu, its six entrees and those seven smaller picnic variations supplemented by at least one daily special. In the new American style, these entrees are usually grilled, familiar dishes with a twist. Soft-shell crabs, for instance, are seasoned with ginger black- bean butter. New York strip steak is topped with porcini mushroom butter, red snapper with toasted cumin beurre blanc, chicken breast with roasted peppers and shallot confit, saute'ed prawns with the garlic emulsion called aioli, and lamb with cabernet-rosemary sauce. The accompaniments, too, are inventive. A corn custard topped with diced red peppers and corn kernels is served with the crabs, black-bean ravioli with the lamb, lemon rice with the snapper, stuffed eggplant with the salmon special. And the usual saute'ed yellow squash and zucchini come with nearly everything.

Appetizers are highlights at Dakota. An Indonesian pork satay is juicy little chunks, well seasoned, nicely grilled and served with a skewer of grilled vegetables. But the cucumber-chili relish does not heighten the satays as effectively as a more clinging sauce might. Jumbo smoked mussels are a revelation of huge, juicy, smoky mussels teamed with a welcome crunch of jicama and seeded cucumbers. One day's special of mussels with salmon was the best dish I have encountered at Dakota. Large enough to be shared by at least two people, each mussel shell is stuffed with a chunk of moist fresh salmon, a mussel and bits of vegetable, all swathed in an airy, buttery sauce. Marinated seafood with roasted peppers was all right -- mostly squid, though, and it came with plenty of lettuce instead of the promised peppers and olives. Pastas have some fine qualities -- the noodles are beautifully thin and evenly rolled -- but they have been dry at the edges as if they were cooked ahead and left to sit. And their sauces were only seasoned butter on both the four-cheese ravioli and the saffron fettuccine with tomatoes (sun-dried, as it turned out), basil and shriveled bits of shiitake mushrooms.

Dakota starts with good produce, so tomato and mozzarella salad with basil is a stunner. On the other hand, someone needs to have a talk with the fish supplier or check storage times. Both red snapper and salmon have been perfectly cooked and nicely seasoned, but the thick fish fillets lacked juiciness and flavor. The snapper was stringy, and the salmon left a bitter aftertaste. Shrimp, though, were glorious, large fresh ones with their heads left on -- making their wonderful juices available to the non-squeamish. Some of the shrimp were slightly soft, bordering on mushy, but that is the frequent flaw of fresh shrimp, and I consider it well worth overlooking for the sweetly fresh, almost lobster flavor that frozen shrimp never have. These shrimp -- or prawns, as they are called on the menu -- are covered with what the menu calls aioli, but which I found too delicate and refined to be a true rendition of this Italian classic.

In terms of sheer quantity, red meats are good values at Dakota. The grilled lamb is a hefty plateful, cooked as rare as we requested, crusty and enhanced by its light winey sauce. Its black-bean ravioli, though, had a flavorless, grainy bit of filling. The steak is thick and well trimmed for a $14 piece of prime beef, though it was not as agreeably cooked as the lamb. It was just pink rather than rare, and the surface needed a hotter fire to make it crusty. Its porcini mushroom butter was a nondescript bit of topping. And with it were match-stick potatoes that had undoubtedly been delicious but were lukewarm and soggy when they got to us. Far better would have been the lemon rice that graced the red snapper; its texture was creamy like a risotto, and its tang was delightful.

Dakota's desserts are nice ideas -- good flavors, but slightly flawed. Chocolate marquise with hazelnuts is so chocolatey and buttery it tastes like a cross between butter cream and fudge. And it is utterly delicious, except for a slight graininess. Fresh fruit tarts are indeed fresh, with ripe berries and delicate custard and no unnecessary glazes or gels, but the tart shells need a lighter hand. Sherbets and ice creams are homemade and range from bland to boisterous.

Dakota has hired friendly waitresses who serve with energy but who don't have the polish to resist interrupting conversations to ask if everything is all right. More time may allow eagerness to mellow into experience.

This is a high-tech multipurpose entertainment center. So high tech is it that my $7.50 picnic plate showed up on the computerized bill as $11.50, indicated as "entree." When I questioned it, the manager apologized and explained that it was a problem with the program. It is a very good computer, she added, but it has a lot of kinks to work out. I might add that it shouldn't be left to the customer to do so.

Dakota is a restaurant with promise, and although the noise of the disco doesn't intrude on dinner, the dining room is clearly an accompaniment rather than the main dish. ::