The Savvy Diner 

Paul Spends His Dollar Like a True Expert

Daily Café

902 NW 13th Ave, 242-1916

It's been six months since the small plate craze hit Portland. You know, the Buckman Bistro, the Noble Rot, et al, where you and a group of smartly dressed friends order rounds of small yummies priced in the six to $10 range. This is supposed to be cool, and it's supposed to save you money.

But I'm highly skeptical. I bet that many patrons at these types of establishments end up at Jack in the Box later on, as they've just dropped $25 dollars on appetizers and they're still hungry.

I prefer big plates of delicious, handcrafted food for small prices. A welfare check can only go so far, and I've grown tired of the government cheese. Occasionally, I need a dose of the good stuff, and incredibly, the Daily Café is able to deliver the good stuff at a discount.

Entrees here rarely top twelve dollars, and in spite of these prices, they're made with fresh, local ingredients. The secret, I think, is the emphasis on food rather than flair. Many Pearl District restaurants spend freely on subtle halogen lighting, expensive china, and booths and flooring straight from the pages of Architectural Digest. And then they'll surreptitiously receive weekly visits from the blue-and-white Sysco truck.

I'm not implying that the Daily Café has a harsh ambience. On the contrary, during dinner hours, lights are dimmed, candles are placed on tables, and the place feels homey and modern. The budget cutting has come in the form of plain dishware, paper menus, no tablecloths, and a reluctance to replace used silverware between courses.

At a recent visit, I began with a fried oyster and spinach salad ($6.50). The greens were thick and supple, coated with (but not swimming in) a properly salted, and simple but cunning buttermilk dressing. The warm, crunchy oysters were artfully displayed on top, and they too were flawlessly prepared.

I was very happy with my entrée, a winter vegetable crespelle with braised chard and a beurre blanc. Them are some fancy highfalutin words for a $10.75 dinner plate. Translation: an eggy crepe formed around a molten mélange of pumpkin and squash, seasoned with a hint of winter spices (nutmeg, allspice), atop a pile of wilted greens encircled by a comforting, but assertive, white wine sauce. Somewhere along the assembly process, a bit of havarti cheese had been added. There was so much going on in this dish in terms of texture and deeper flavors that I'd forgotten that I'd ordered the vegetarian entrée.

My man Geoff couldn't find anything vegan on the menu. But after a conference with the helpful waitstaff, he ordered the portobello panini, sans cheese, sans butter, sans aioli. Even without those fun trimmings, it was a superb sandwich, saved by the sweet, clever tomato jam. I managed to sneak two of the fantastic double-fried French fries, which were dusted with fresh herbs. Had he excused himself from the table, I'd have finished them off.

We skipped dessert because we had to rush home to watch Grace's wedding on Will and Grace, but I overheard other customers raving about the poached pear special.

The Daily Café is a budget-conscious restaurant that will fill you with creative, educated cuisine you can luxuriate in alone, without the dirty intrusive fingers of your smartly dressed cohorts.

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