by Lauren McAllister

Caf & eacute; 5-Ten moved from a humble little location on South Freya two years ago, into a surprisingly pleasant space in the lower level of the Lincoln Heights Shopping Center. The space is made unique by the sunroom windows that wrap around the walls and ceiling. When the weather is nice, there is a charming little enclosed patio for outdoor dining. Inside, soft taupe and gentle gold tints on the walls make a quiet backdrop for some interesting artwork created on maps. The tables are dressed in ivory brocade, with a silk Gerbera daisy adding a touch of whimsy and romance.

Chef and owner Michael Waliser says sometimes customers seem to have a misconception of the restaurant: "They have the image that we are a special occasion or fancy restaurant, but that's not what we're trying to say at all."

Instead, Waliser says he and his staff are trying to offer the freshest ingredients, skillfully prepared, and top-notch service at prices similar to national chain restaurants. "We know a lot of our customers by name," he says, lamenting the perennially full parking lot at a cookie-cutter franchise not far away.

On the evening we visited, the dining room was nicely busy. We started with an appetizer of grilled thinly sliced lamb ($9). Thin, marinated slices of tender lamb were grilled and served with grilled flatbread and a unique hummus based on lentils instead of the traditional garbanzo beans. On first taste, this appetizer seemed a bit plain, with the hummus lacking the usual lemony, garlicky zing. However, the more we ate, the more we liked it. Stacking the lamb with a layer of hummus on the pita, then adding some of the olive tapenade and feta cheese also on the plate, made for a wonderful, healthy and fresh-tasting combination. This was one of the most satisfying appetizers I've had recently, and it's also available as a lunch plate.

Other appetizers are a tomato and fresh mozzarella plate ($8), fried calamari ($9) and baked brie with bread and fruit ($9).

Salads included are available in petite and bistro sizes. I tried the spinach salad with soy nuts, smoked bacon, granny smith apples, gorgonzola and sherry dressing ($5 for petite). The spinach was tender and sweet, but I wished there had been more of the goodies and a bit more dressing. My companion's Caesar ($5) was an acceptable version of this classic, though some freshly grated Parmesan would have been a nice touch.

The entr & eacute;e menu is fairly brief, as Waliser cooks it all in the restaurant's small kitchen. There are nightly specials to keep things interesting. I was tempted by the chicken Milanese ($16), a Parmesan encrusted chicken breast sauteed with brown butter, capers and lemon juice and served with a garlic linguini. But I settled on the six-ounce culot sirloin steak ($14), which was grilled and served with gruyere potato gratin and seasonal vegetables. The steak was perfectly cooked and tender as butter, with a nice reduction sauce for added interest. The potato gratin was a treat, with abundant creamy cheese layered with tender potatoes and topped with a crunchy crust of bread crumbs. A generous serving of fresh sauteed zucchini, peppers and onions completed this satisfying and hearty meal. Another beef option is the 12-ounce New York steak ($20). For an additional $7, grilled prawns can be added to either beef entr & eacute;e.

Other entrees include linguini puttanesca ($13) with tomatoes, capers, Greek olives, anchovies, feta cheese and basil; and scampi with prawns poached in garlic white wine, olive oil red chili flakes and lemon.

My companion chose the most unusual item on the menu, riosotto di coniglio ($15), a risotto with braised rabbit and pancetta, artichokes, baby carrots, sage and white wine ($15). This was a nicely prepared, mild dish with some fresh spinach adding color. The sage was predominant, giving the dish an autumn feel.

For dessert, we sampled a creme brul & eacute;e, which was not extraordinary, and a pot de creme, which was luscious, with the smooth, cool chocolate creating the perfect finale to our meal.

Caf & eacute; 5-Ten is open for lunch, and a couple of the sandwich plates are also available for dinner, including a choice ground chuck burger with smoked bacon and cheddar ($7) and a grilled chicken breast sandwich with prosciutto, balsamic sweet onions, provolone and caper aioli ($9.50).

Service throughout the evening was top-notch despite the fact that the kitchen was a bit overwhelmed. Every effort was made to keep us comfortable and happy. There was a bit of a wait between our appetizer and main course, and our server stopped by to declare spontaneously that dessert would be on the house. Smart -- too often I find servers completely out of touch with our dining experience. The delay wasn't bothering us, but by anticipating that it might, our server made sure to leave us with a good impression.

Caf & eacute; 5-Ten is an appealing bistro with an interesting menu, with intriguing items in nearly every price range. To court his customers, Waliser also allows diners to bring their own wines with no corkage fees, and on Mondays offers half-price wine specials. The dining space can be divided to accommodate private parties.

Waliser's frustration with the droves of diners flocking to chain restaurants is one I've heard before and should be taken seriously in a city that is searching for an identity and a way to keep wealth from flowing out of the area. Small bistros like Caf & eacute; 5-Ten not only offer a sense of community, but also help support other local businesses, such as organic farms.

"We try to use all fresh ingredients, and that is, at times, our downfall," says Waliser, "because those ingredients can be pretty perishable."

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