At Five Spice CafÈ freshness is the keyI can safely say, without reservation, that two of the very finest meals I have enjoyed anywhere over the past six months or so have been at chef-owner Juping Chi's fabulous Five Spice CafÈ, which occupies the space that once housed the Gourmet Emporium. The flavors, the quality of the ingredients, the presentation and the exquisite attention to detail all sing of Juping's passion for food, her love of all things good and her overwhelming joie de vivre. Just 10 minutes in the company of this meticulous restaurateur (she also owns Mikado downtown) reveals an indefatigable quest for purity and taste that is so rare these days as to be almost extinct.

Conceived around a heart-healthy menu, Five Spice CafÈ doesn't wear its healthiness on its sleeve, unlike so many establishments with worthy intentions. In fact, it disguises its mission brilliantly behind a heavy veil of flavor, which means that those who equate good health with dull and indifferent food can eat here without knowing that they are doing their body a favor.

Don't let the word cafÈ fool you. This isn't some grungy greasy spoon, or soulless food court outlet. When you enter Five Spice, you're entering a world of whimsy. Greenery abounds: Screens of bamboo and banana divide the dining areas and fresh flowers adorn the tables. A single table for eight with sunken seating occupies almost a third of the dining area, a costly indulgence, but one that Juping dismisses with characteristic ease. One gets the immediate impression that nothing here is too much trouble and that no effort is too great when the customer's satisfaction is involved.

If, like me, you're the kind of diner who eschews vast open spaces and likes to lurk in secluded corners, you'll love Five Spice. It's divided into several discreet dining areas, each with only a few tables, giving the illusion of intimacy in what was originally a large and neutral space. The tables are set well apart, and are easily accessible, meaning that you don't have to listen in on your neighbor's conversation, if you even have a neighbor, that is. Unlike so many establishments, Five Spice disperses its guests around the dining room, rather than clumping them together in a single section.

As for the food, freshness is the key. Even though the menu is quite long, with a dozen first courses and 20 or so entrÈes, everything is prepared from scratch, and it shows. Take the handmade red oil little dumplings, for instance ($9). These perfect little flavor bombs are made with minced pork wrapped in the lightest of dough, steamed and served a dozen or so to the order on a vast white serving dish. This dish sits at an angle, causing the dumplings to rest in a shallow pool of chili-garlic-soy sauce. Delicate, yet bursting with freshness and flavor, these are some of the best dumplings around.

The mussels two ways ($10) are served on a long thin platter with a bowl at one end. Arranged along the length of the platter, on top of a banana leaf, are two rows of mussels that have been steamed in basil, chili, garlic and white wine. In the bowl, there are mussels that have been lightly cooked in a broth of reduced coconut milk, infused with lemon grass and a touch of curry. The presentation of this dish, combined with the exquisitely subtle and contrasting flavors, epitomizes the ambition and accomplishment of this excellent kitchen.

The third appetizer recently sampled, the seared sesame crusted tuna, is pretty well impeccable. At $14, you might say that it should be, too. But consider that the fish used here is the highest grade of bluefin tuna, with a color like aged venison and a consistency that melts on your tongue, and it quickly becomes worth every single penny. Garnished with an almost transparent streak of the lightest imaginable wasabi mayonnaise, this dish is the embodiment of harmony. Bravo, I say.

And so to the main courses. With so much to choose from, my friend and I chose three representative items. First off was a pan-grilled Dover sole with honey and almonds ($28). Although the fish comes in whole from Europe, it is served in fillets with a minimum of frills. This glorious fish, the fish of choice for many connoisseurs of the subject, is a real pleasure to eat when properly prepared. And properly in this case means as simply as possible. Dover sole has a firm, quite dense texture that cuts rather than flakes when attacked with a knife. There's a mild sweetness to the flesh that is beautifully contrasted by the fish's natural saltiness. It's a complex and intriguing species, one seen all too rarely here, hence its relatively lofty price.

The seared moulard duck breast two ways was also a wonderful exploration of contrasts. A favorite dish of the last empress of the Ching Dynasty, the still pink duck breast is divided between two sauces. The first is a rich, sticky, foie-gras-based red wine sauce, the epitome of decadence. The second is a wonderful reduction of plums and red wine, and is lighter, fruitier and thoroughly delicious. Artfully presented, this dish is served with a crunchily fresh egg roll whose crisp texture and clean flavors refresh the palate between bites of rich and fatty duck.

Next came the owner's favorite noodle stir-fry ($19). Served with shellfish and vegetables, these thick, tender noodles proved absolutely irresistible. Bound together by a very light and savory sauce, almost a coating of broth, really, this dish once again displayed the chef's uncanny command of harmony and texture. This dish could easily be a meal in itself.

Desserts at Five Spice are probably not the strong point: A tiramisu we sampled was nicely flavored, but not particularly authentic. Ice creams and sorbets are probably the best way to go here, when they are offered.

The wine list is simple and largely uninspired, which is a shame, because this can be very wine-friendly cuisine if the right selections are on offer. Next time I dine at Five Spice, I shall stick to sake, of which there is a reasonable selection.

These two minor complaints are more than compensated for by the quality of everything else, so don't let them dissuade you from paying a visit at your earliest convenience. Five Spice CafÈ is not an inexpensive restaurant, especially if you are hungry and are in the mood to sample a number of dishes.

Quality like this comes at a price, however, especially when rare and perishable ingredients constitute so many of the dishes. Some restaurant pricing is indefensible, but not this. It is rare to find food as thrilling and inspired as this, both beautiful to behold and a revelation to eat. What's more, it's healthy, too, so you can feast without guilt. What more could a body want?

Hear every Friday morning at 9 on WXNT-AM, 1430.

Five Spice CafÈNorth Willow Commons, 86th & Ditch 875-7055 Lunch Monday-Saturday 11-3 Dinner Monday-Thursday 4:30-10 Friday-Saturday 4:30-11 Sunday 4:30-9  Food : 5 stars

Atmosphere : 4 stars

Service : 4 stars

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