• Daily Cafe

It's hard to say which is the best meal at the Daily Cafe, located in the Pearl District.

Is it the multicourse, bargain-basement Sunday brunch with its appetizer blintzes and hedonistic French toast? Would it be the supremely fresh dishes such as blue cheese and leek soufflŽ and porter-braised venison offered at dinnertime? Or even lunch, when the Daily does brisk trade in firm quiches, melty panini and chocolate-apricot macaroons?

See, it's not easy to whittle it down to one. The Daily excels at turning out creative, seasonal treats no matter what time of day and does so in a hip, tasteful setting with absolutely no pretension.

Dinner, especially, presents some intriguing plates. A half-pound burger made with beef from Sauvie Island's Ford Farm gets a blanket of maple-glazed ham and manages to come off as inspired, not gauche. Even a basic salad of organic greens is something special here, thanks to a zingy Meyer lemon vinaigrette. Goat cheese pizzetta topped with olives and caramelized onions paired with a glass of syrah makes an ideal light meal, all the better because it leaves room for chocolate pots de crme with beignets.

Ñ Christina Melander

Bottom line: Inventive, well-priced meals served morning, noon and night

Serving: Breakfast, lunch, dinner, Sunday brunch

Entree prices: $10-$13

Address/phone: 902 N.W. 13th Ave., 503-242-1916

• J & M Cafe

A stalwart breakfast and lunch joint, J & M Cafe recently added keen dinner service. Just a couple of months into the venture, the airy restaurant stacks up quite well compared with swank dining rooms where prices are twice as high.

Shortly after being seated at a candlelit table, your server delivers the most wonderful snack to tide you over: toasted campagnolo bread slathered with mascarpone cheese and coarse salt. This salty-melty morsel easily trumps standard ciabatta with extra-virgin olive oil.

A clever list of champagne- and fortified wine-based cocktails also helps start things off right at J & M. Try the Adonis Ñ a sublime, dry mix of sherry, vermouth bianco and orange bitters Ñ with an order of smoked salmon bathed in cherry tomato vinaigrette and accompanied by dainty pea pancakes.

Larger plates offer a wonderful mix of flavor and texture. A swarthy half-chicken arrives with chili-spiked grits; firm, nicely cooked sturgeon is coupled with chickpeas, spinach and lemon jam.

But dead simple dishes triumph, too: Tagliatelle smothered with sharp, melted cheeses puts mac 'n' cheese to shame.

Ñ C.M.

Bottom line: Sides and small and large plates let you craft a meal as big or little as you like at cut-rate prices.

Serving: Breakfast, lunch and dinner

Entree prices: $5.95-$10.50

Address/phone: 537 S.E. Ash St., 503-230-0463

• Justa Pasta

Slowly, steadily, Justa Pasta has made a stellar name for itself.

A wholesaler of fresh pasta to many Portland restaurants, Justa also has grown into a full-fledged restaurant that offers one of the best values in town.

The clean-lined, unassuming restaurant is nonstop busy at lunchtime, presenting nonpareil Caesar salads and bowls of bucatini and marinara with perfect timing. Patrons can enjoy their Pearl Bakery baguette with olive oil and balsamic vinegar and a two-course lunch and still get out in 45 minutes.

Dinner is sleepier, though Justa is making headway in this trade, serving intricate lasagnas and seafood specials.

Day and night, several types of pasta and ravioli are available with sauces ranging from woodsy sautŽed mushroom and garlic to subtle Alfredo. The menu changes with the seasons, but if you get too attached to that Swiss chard-ricotta ravioli, you can always buy a pound of it to go, along with a container of Justa's nutty pesto.

Beer, wine and outrageous layer cakes complete the supremely satisfying dining experience.

Ñ C.M.

Bottom line: Restrained pasta dishes at rock-bottom prices

Serving: Lunch and dinner

Entree prices: $4-$12

Address/phone: 1336 N.W. 19th Ave., 503-243-2249

• Sungari

Like any estimable restaurant, Sungari uses fresh, quality ingredients. Right there, that sets it apart from lazier Chinese joints whose scallops don't taste as sweet and whose broccoli is past its prime.

Sungari passes up red dragon dŽcor in favor of austere, dove-gray walls and understated art. Though not strictly Sichuan, many of Sungari's entrees are peppery, a main characteristic of this particular Chinese cuisine.

Yet even with the spiciest dishes, heat does not obscure the pure flavors of the components of say, kung pao shrimp. Diners can taste the individual flavors of plump prawns, peanuts, water chestnuts and celery, each intensified by chilies, garlic and ginger.

What really makes Sungari special are the creations you don't find at the average Chinese restaurant. Sungari duck slices is a fantastic medley of tender duck, snow peas, carrots and mushrooms in a subtly spiced sauce. And small culinary touches such as ginger chicken made with young ginger Ñ a type with pale skin possessed of a milder zing than mature ginger Ñ go a long way.

Ñ C.M.

Bottom line: Zero kitsch factor

Serving: Lunch and dinner

Entree prices: $7.95-$24.95

Address/phone: 735 S.W. First Ave., 503-224-0800

• Taqueria Nueve

East-side favorite Taqueria Nueve has expanded into an adjacent storefront and shed its former rustic cantina ambience.

Now, a soft leather banquette runs the length of a freshly painted fuchsia wall, and wood paneling slants down from the ceiling to quell the restaurant's din. Part of this sleek package is a tiled bar twice the size of the old one and a hefty wooden table big enough to accommodate large parties.

The menu also is refurbished, though several original dishes fortunately have made the cut: piquant ceviche, coctel de pulpo (spicy lime-cured octopus) and several taco varieties including the wonderful achiote-seasoned pork, wild boar and roasted beef tongue.

In other offerings, familiar ingredients are presented in invigorated guises. The intricate mole no longer smothers a quarter chicken, rather it tops a plate of tortillas, shredded chicken, cheese and crema. Instead of steak with tequila salsa, delicious grilled top sirloin is paired with sweet-and-sour onions and chipotle salsa.

In addition to its wonderful, orange-tinged flan for dessert, Taqueria Nueve has introduced a three-milk layer cake with chocolate mocha icing and pecans. Sweet and creamy, it's a chocolate dessert that doesn't bludgeon you with chocolate.

Ñ C.M.

Bottom line: Welcoming atmosphere, far above average Mexican fare

Serving: Lunch and dinner

Entree prices: $8-$12.25

Address/phone: 28 N.E. 28th Ave., 503-236-6195

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