by Mike Corrigan

The word Empyrean is derived from a Greek phrase translated as "in fire," but later it came to mean "heaven." (Yes, I looked it up.) While not exactly a godly abode, there is something sublime about the new caf & eacute; on South Madison that bears an ancient name. It's something in the way it celebrates coffee, food, art and music; something in the way it welcomes its customers; something in the way its owners have boldly set up shop in a neighborhood desperate for physical and spiritual renewal.

Empyrean Coffee Shop and Caf & eacute;, which occupies the old Luminaria space, is much more than a mere coffee stand, offering substantial foodstuffs -- sandwiches, salads and desserts -- in a warm and inviting atmosphere replete with cozy chairs and couches, a faux fireplace, earth-tone hues and rustic hardwoods. Remnants of the Luminaria days remain in the form of fabulous antique lighting fixtures, but the endless lamps, shades and electrical displays have been replaced by dining room tables and chairs, a deli case and a handsome coffee bar in hammered copper. Original art adorns the walls, a small yet adequate stage in the back hosts live music events and large windows allow the late-morning daylight to spill in all over the place. For all of its sophistication, Empyrean is casual and free of pretense, thanks in great part to its charming and helpful owners, Alex and Shae Caruso.

"It feels like we're just getting the ball rolling with everything we want to do," says Shae Caruso while apologizing for the lack of sandwich choices on the day of our visit. "We've been adding things slowly here and there because people don't really know we're here yet."

Yet the buzz is growing. In the two months since its opening, Empyrean has already established itself (through word of mouth, mostly) as a friendly oasis in a neighborhood known more for its low-rent hotels than for its potential as an arts and culture center.

While the location might be enough to make some Nellies nervous, Alex Caruso says Empyrean has a very good relationship with the locals. "Ninety percent of them are fabulous," he says. "For the most part, we get along smashingly with our neighbors."

The food choices are modest but varied and are produced locally. Salads and desserts are from Fery's Catering, the breads and pastries come courtesy of Sweetwater Baking and the coffee is the Shop's own house-roasted Anvil brand. Behind the glass in the deli case, you'll find a pile of sandwiches at $5.50 each -- roast beef, a rustic turkey and the Roma with fresh mozzarella, Roma tomatoes, basil and pesto -- all served on fresh Sweetwater bread. Salads at $3.95 each come in bean and barley, Greek pasta and chicken spinach pasta varieties. There's also a stuffed bagel (with assorted meat and cheese fillings) for $2.50, mini pizza bagels (with pepperoni, sausage or veggie) for $2.50 and a selection of amazing-looking desserts from Sweetwater and Fery's. The day we stopped in, we spied a lemon cr & egrave;me cake, a pile of Napoleons ($3.95) and almond cookies ($1.50). There's also a decent selection of specialty teas, boutique sodas and other beverages.

On a recent trip, we sampled the roast beef sandwich, the sausage-and-cheese-stuffed bagel and two pasta salads -- the chicken spinach and the Greek. We also picked up an apple 'n' cream cheese croissant ($2.50) and a round of Boylands Sugar Cane Cola.

The sausage-and-cheese-stuffed bagel pocket was heated panini-style and served on a plate next to a glass bowl containing Fery's famous chicken and spinach pasta salad. The pocket was a little on the bread-y side, as in there was just barely enough of the filling inside to taste it. Otherwise, it was quite successful. The pasta salad was excellent, with ziti and rotini cooked to absolute al dente perfection and mixed with tasty little chunks of white chicken meat and tender leaves of fresh spinach. The lightly applied creamy dressing had a parmesan-y, lemony zing that set it apart from any other pasta salad we'd ever had.

The roast beef sandwich came on fresh grilled bread with folds of deli-style roast beef inside topped with melted Swiss and a bit of horseradish and mayo -- a very comforting, and not overwhelming, sandwich. The Greek pasta salad with cucumber, diced tomatoes and feta was tasty and savory, with dressing that was slightly spicy and tube pasta that was nicely firm, not soggy. It could have used a few more vegetables, but other than that, it was delicious. The apple cream cheese scone was flaky and slightly buttery with a gently sweet, creamy filling. It would work well as both a complement to a meal and as a stand-alone dessert.

The coffee we sampled was robust and held up respectably when mixed with soymilk and flavored syrup.

The Carusos are still in the process of tweaking the menu and will be adding a wine bar and more live entertainment offerings (music, film nights. etc.) in the near future. In the meantime, do yourself a favor: Stop in, grab a bite and watch the Empyrean evolution.

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