Be prepared. Be prepared to leave the Daily Cafe with that dizzy, euphoric feeling you catch when all the luck that exists in the world collides and lands on your lap. The first time you take in the Daily Cafe's Sunday brunch is like a unexpected upgrade to first class on a cross-country trip. The basic fact that a simple restaurant can beckon these little exercised endorphins is enough to instill awe.
The Daily Cafe in the Pearl District offers breakfast and lunch for those with light wallets and demanding palates. It opened this past April in an airy space trussed up in industrial chic: Rough cement walls, naked ductwork and smooth slab floors are countered with papery, podlike light fixtures, rustic wood tables and artwork by local swashbuckling notables such as Lucinda Parker and Matthew Dennison. (Owners Drue Sherman and Kristen Harris have another Daily Cafe location, opened prior to the Pearl version, inside Rejuvenation House Parts on Southeast Grand Avenue. While the same loving care is taken with dishes at both locations, I must confess to a prejudice against the spot in the home-furnishings store: I like restaurants as destinations, and the in-store Daily always feels like an add-on to me. Since it's attached to the musty end of Rejuvenation where used parts are trafficked, it's none too comfortable at that.)
While the Daily Cafe in the Pearl is bustling during lunch with a comely crowd of artists-in-training from nearby Pacific Northwest College of Art, the real scene is the Sunday brunch. It's this pageant of attentive service, well-conceived dishes and sheer volume of food that have those in the know lining up each weekend, forsaking the Lord, hot yoga and every other seventh-day attraction that held their hearts before they fell under the Daily's spell.
Served only on Sundays, the Daily Cafe's brunch intuitively zooms in on a niche of eaters that can't stand the pompous circumstance of hotel brunches nor the greasy griddles of other joints. A fixed price of $9.95 gets you three courses, the cost of a plate of eggs and hash browns with coffee at some lesser halls.
On non-brunch days, the Daily Cafe offers counter service only, but for brunch, table service awaits. Soon after being seated, a basket is placed in front of you. Peel back the layers of cloth napkin and you'll find a collection of house-baked mini muffins, scones and biscuits that cover the sweet-through-savory spectrum, each screamingly good. (On a recent visit, my dining mate literally sighed after her first bite.) This offering of bread is brilliant on many levels. Sundays around this time, most people are ravenous. Perhaps they're hung over, or they've just had leisurely sex and need to replace burned-up calories, or they've just put off eating until noon after rising late. At some brunch haunts you wait in line, and then you get seated, and then you wait some more.... When your meal comes, you can hardly taste it as you shovel it in to stop the growling. The Daily Cafe folks seem to know this instinctively, and my guess is they're so proud of everything else they've cooked up, they don't want it to slip by you too fast.
After downing some coffee (illy is served here) and staving off hypoglycemia with a flaky, cheesy biscuit, you await your next dish, which you've chosen from a list of appetizers. Yes, you've read correctly: APPETIZERS. As someone who shuns pancakes as an entree--a whole plate of sweetness seems overwhelming--but still wants a little nibble of that stuff, this is ideal. One week I had a hot, doughy and pliant blintz filled with ricotta and topped with a compote of the ultimate winter fruit, Anjou pear, while my eating partner dug into a festive baked apple cradling currants, crème fraîche and toasted walnuts. Another week I went for the slow-cooked Irish oatmeal partially coated with caramelized brown sugar. As the rain pummeled the windows outside, I poured some cream into the bowl and warmed my hands on the sides. There are days made for oatmeal, and there is oatmeal made for every day: This was where the twain did meet. A fruit salad with honey-yogurt sauce ordered across the table netted a bowl with bursting chunks of melon, gleaming slices of kiwi and other very much alive-looking nuggets. A few mint leaves balanced the mellow flavor of the sauce.
After the appetizer plates are swooped from the table, it's time to gear up for the entrees. This selection of eight choices changes fairly regularly and ranges from breakfasty to digging into dinner. The Portuguese baked eggs come in a ramekin layered with tomato sauce on the bottom and thin strips of garlicky linguiça sausage flanking the main ingredient. The chunky homefries served on the side counterbalance the vibrant flavors in this dish. Not usual Sunday morning fare--and so much better for it. One time, I thrust my fork in my friend's salmon hash and was pleased by the chunks of firm fish in proper ratio to the potatoes. On another visit, it was hard deciding whether to order the polenta cakes with two fried eggs and salsa verde, the omelette with prosciutto ham, roasted fennel and fontina cheese or the risotto with spinach and goat cheese. After some fast-talking, hard-sell come-ons, I was able to convince my friends to order different dishes that included the three mentioned above. All were inventive and ideal. Polenta is bland by design, and its main purpose on the planet is to let the other ingredients shine. I poked the fried egg and waited until the yolk dripped down the polenta cake; then I scooped it up with some of the salsa and was quickly swayed by the layers of flavor. The omelet, labeled as "savory," avoided the five-egg-disaster syndrome that downs so many attempts at this breakfast favorite. Compact and spare in its use of the earthy ham, fennel and cheese, it was a lesson in the power of restraint. And finally, the risotto. This offered the biggest surprise. How often do you find yourself dragged into new territory for brunch? It was studded with raisins and pomegranate seeds and had a base that seemed flavored with clove--homey as buckskin slippers. Then, just when it was about to veer into oatmeal territory, a flake of goat cheese landed on my tongue and turned it into a completely different dish, one that was nutty and dinner-bound. Miraculous.
Lest you believe that the Daily Cafe has a deal with the devil and traded its soul for perfection, I will say that charging $2.50 for a side of bacon that consists of two strips is inconsistent with the great value for the rest of the meal. And the lunch options, while stronger than what most midday specialists offer, can be hit or miss. The wasabi tuna seems to be lacking a real wasabi kick. And a recent purée of squash soup was too thick and one-note. Still, the fresh-baked goodies (go for the cookie they call "The Cowboy," a disk bigger than a saddle, laced with still-warm-from-the-oven chocolate chunks) are superb, as are the panini.
The Daily Cafe plans to start serving dinner Jan. 10. With this place's attention to detail and seemingly symbiotic understanding of what the customer wants, bets are good that it will take this category as well. When a restaurant like this comes along, you want to keep it a secret. But the real truth is if you shout it out loud, others can see what it's doing. And in the end, this will nudge other restaurateurs to pay attention and, hopefully,
follow its lead.
902 NW 13th Ave., 242-1916
7 am4 pm Monday- Friday, 9 am4 pm Saturday, brunch 9:30 am2 pm Sunday. $ Inexpensive.
Credit cards accepted, children in abundance.
blintz, Cowboy cookies, many of the rotating brunch options, porchetta panini
warm, yeasty delights set before you at brunch; adorable children running amok on weekends; large communal wood table.