Since it opened in 1994, Paley's Place has created a name for itself among Portland's best restaurants, thanks to unpretentious, imaginative cooking. Typically, chef Vitaly Paley asks a simple question: "What can you do to a carrot that hasn't been done before?" And his food suggests a remarkable answer: "You can cook it perfectly."

Paley and his wife, Kimberly, serve sensuous food at their Northwest Portland restaurant--think of escargots surrounding a bone oozing with succulent marrow and bathed in a rich, mahogany-hued and garlic-infused bordelaise sauce made from reduced veal stock and red wine--yet Vitaly is an intellectual cook. That is, he experiments and invents with a rigorous sense of how elements extract flavors from one another in unexpected ways. If he has a signature dish, it might be diver scallops in demi-deuil (half-mourning): bivalves sautéed in sea urchin and grapefruit butter (for notes both sweet and bitter), topped with black truffle shavings--a daring but perfectly correct pairing.

The restaurant's cuisine is hard to label definitely, though Northwest with accents of France would be close. While there are such new and brilliantly fresh plates as briny, smoky oysters mingled with diced orange and peppery salsa, the restaurant's roots remain in country French, inflected with personal touches. Thus, a saddle of rabbit is sliced and the tender meat is wrapped around prunes. Treviso, torpedo-shaped radicchio, are grilled with a poached egg, then Manchego cheese is showered on the bitter vegetable, sweetened and salted with a bacon vinaigrette. And delicate sweetbreads take on an assertive punch when sauced with sweet-and-sour condiments and enlivened with crunchy Brussels sprouts and winter squash.

To sample Paley's gastronomical wit, order the buffalo wings, here made with quail instead of barnyard chicken. The dedication to putting an individual stamp on everything is apparent here, from a pepper-flaked and orange-zested catsup that's packed with a pungency Teresa Heinz's in-laws could never have imagined, to homemade potato chips that make Kettle Chips seem stale, flat, weary and unprofitable.

The experience of dining at Paley's is both modestly elegant and intimately homey. The main room of the converted house is restrained and tasteful, while the bistro area offers a more informal and lively nook. Everything works in concert, from the baskets of chanterelles, pears, apples and nuts on the porch to the greeting by Kimberly Paley (considered by the industry the best front-of-house person in town), from the fresh flowers on each table to the crisply attentive but never-cloying service. The kitchen staff is well trained, and those who prep don't use that term, because in this kitchen even chopping is considered part of the creative process of cooking.

Before he became a chef, Paley was a Juilliard-trained classical pianist, while Kimberly was a professional dancer. It makes sense, then, that there's a quote from Martha Graham posted in the kitchen: "Keep the channel open, aware of the urges that motivate you. No artist is ever pleased--there is only a divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest, that make us more alive than others."

At Paley's Place, this declaration might mean that one day gnocchi are stuffed with sheep's ricotta and porcini, another day with chestnuts, yet another with pumpkin. Or that since the menu no longer lists dishes as "appetizers" and "entrees," you can order your first or your second course in variable sizes, allowing you to compose a dinner to your desires.

Paley's Place has gotten better over the years because cooking and creating are not merely a pleasure but, the chef claims, "an addiction." He may have traded a Steinway grand for a Montague range, but Paley remains true to the music: An ingredient expresses notes, and the chef listens for them, extracting the pitch and tone so the dish "sounds" in the right key. For example, in the autumn, Paley says he likes to ride his bike out into the country, and when he spots cabbages growing in a field, his mind dreams of possible recipes. Savory cabbage "asks for" bacon, apples, cider and onions, he claims, while red cabbage "demands" cassis, honey and hazelnuts. His approach signifies an engaged and fertile imagination that brings continual excitement to the making of superb food.

There's a long-standing debate whether cooking is an art or a craft. Perhaps this duo, the pianist and the ballerina, have a special understanding of how that dispute goes, but even the most philistine among us will understand this immediately: Art here means rediscovery and renewal. And that's a good place to be as Paley's heads into its second decade.

Paley's Place

1204 NW 21st Ave., 243-2403.

Open for dinner daily. All credit cards. Children welcome though seldom seen. $$$ Expensive.