I am really excited about the inventive food coming out of the kitchen at Cafe 5-Ten, a terrific new restaurant in a surprising venue.
Michael Waliser, who has bounced around a lot of kitchens in Spokane, finally has his own place and his passion for food shows up on each and every plate.
Waliser started his cooking career in Seattle before being hired by Gina Lanza to work at the late, great Amore at the end of the ‘80s. In a funny twist of fate, he and a silent partner bought Lanza’s Anaconda Grille last summer. (He has also worked at Fugazzi, Bountiful Foods and Huckleberry’s over the years.)
Doing the remodeling work himself, Waliser transformed the playful Anaconda dining room into a sleek, sophisticated space, with tan walls and fluid fabric draped from the ceiling.
Dramatic paintings by Derek Eliasen fill up the walls. Potted rosemary plants adorn each of the dozen tables. Jazz plays softly in the background. The lighting is a bit bright, but it certainly flatters the food. And with a nod to Karla Graves at Paprika, 5-Ten’s plates are among the prettiest in town.
Picture a sunny yellow salad plate delicately drizzled with a dark balsamic vinegar reduction (one diner asked if it was chocolate sauce). Or a perfectly pink steak sliced in half and placed atop a velvety brown demiglace.
And the food tastes every bit as good as it looks.
Diners are greeted with a plate of Fugazzi’s stellar rosemary-potato bread and a tiny dipping bowl filled with balsamic vinegar, extra virgin olive oil, pepper flakes and a sprinkle of fresh herbs. Who needs butter when you have this elixir?
Munch on that while studying the fairly short menu. It opens with a few choice appetizers, including the excellent calamari “Lanza” ($6.95). The simple dish soars with zesty lemon, garlic and red pepper flakes seasoning the lightly cooked, amazingly tender squid. (I do prefer the shredded red cabbage to the baby greens, though.)
Entrees include a couple of traditional pastas - spaghetti and meatballs and a mildly spicy puttanesca, along with a grilled chicken, steak and a risotto with sauteed prawns. It’s worth noting that the chicken served at 5-Ten is free-range and the beef is “natural”, raised without antibiotics or growth hormones, a nice holdover from Waliser’s stint at Huckleberry’s.
Dinners come with a choice of two house salads or soup. I know beets can be a tough sell, but I recommend those on a salad of baby greens and feta. This ruby red veg is roasted, which brings out its sweet side, and then diced. The beets have a slight crunch. And the orange-hazelnut vinaigrette makes a nice complement.
The Tuscan white bean soup is so thick it should really be called a stew. Semantics aside, it’s scrumptious. The presence of rosemary gives it a rustic flavor and a great aroma. A bowl of this stuff could make a meal.
Along with the everyday entree selections, the kitchen creates daily specials. (Though my spies tell me on at least one occasion, a server said the kitchen hadn’t had time to come up with anything for that evening.)
I marveled at a tuna special ($17) that sounded like it could be a busy mish-mash, but turned out to be a real work of art.
A piece of sushi-quality yellowtail was wrapped in a ruby-veined Swiss chard leaf and grilled medium rare. It was sliced in half and nestled on top of a caponnata of roasted vegetables including some baby eggplant Waliser had cultivated in a container out front. Below that was an explosion of color, crimson beet “juice” seasoned with ginger, lemon juice and white wine, rimmed by a brilliant liquified parsley. Lots of things were going on there, but it worked. I relished every beautiful bite.
I was also mighty impressed with the steak ($18.95). It had real meaty flavor, which was enhanced by the port-spiked sauce with little extras such as pink peppercorns and shallots. The roasted Yukon gold potatoes and grilled veggies added more color to the plate.
The chicken ($15.95) was nicely cooked, still juicy, but after getting past the crispy, fennel-seasoned skin, it was just, well, chicken. It gave me a real appreciation for accompanying grilled polenta and tomato coulis.
The lone vegetarian dish was a penne with portobello mushrooms and roasted peppers, finished with dabs of tangy goat cheese and a subtle sherry-mushroom stock ($12.95). The dish tasted like it could use another layer of flavor, maybe a splash of balsamic. Also, I thought cubing the mushrooms didn’t show them to their best advantage. Loved the fragrant, sage-rosemary oil painted on the side of the bowl, though.
The risotto ($16.95) also lacked punch. Unlike most creamy risottos, this recipe relied on roasted tomatoes for a base. It sounded good on paper, but just needed something. (Lemon zest? Salt?) The big pink prawns glistening atop the rice were sauteed in chili oil and really made the dish.
Desserts are made in-house and might include tiramisu or poached fruit.
Lunch at Cafe 5-Ten is a real deal, with many of the same dishes from the dinner menu at lower prices. There’s also a selection of sandwiches and entree-size salads. A full meal, with a soup or salad course, runs between $2.95 and $8.95.
I recently tried a seafood pasta special that showcased sauteed monkfish and calamari. The seafood was properly cooked (not overdone) and tossed with fettucine and sun-dried tomatoes. The base of olive oil and just a bit of butter made it light enough for a midday meal, but rich enough so I couldn’t finish the generous portion.
Waliser can be found waiting tables a few days a week, while the very able Kyle Nelson, a graduate of the prestigious Culinary Institute of America, cooks. I only hope that as business picks up, Waliser will hire some savvy servers and focus his attention on the action in the kitchen.
Like the Anaconda Grille, Cafe 5-Ten does not have a liquor license, so you must pick up a $10 banquet permit at the state liquor store if you want to bring your own.
You should, and make a night of it.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Map of area
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Cafe 5-Ten 510 S. Freya, 533-0064 Days/hours: Monday-Friday, lunch, 11 a.m.-2 p.m.; Monday Saturday, dinner, 5-9 p.m. Meals: Italian, fresh Northwest Prices: $10.95-$18.95 for dinner Smoking: entirely non-smoking Credit cards: MC, V Personal checks: yes Reservations: yes