Hallowed Table 

Dinner at Castle Rock's Old Stone Church

Hallelujah. I've found a church that even a heathen such as I can enjoy. And the service is terrific!

So, OK, it's no longer a consecrated church, and the only thing being worshiped is food. Glorious food. Divine food. Our dining experience was damn close to transcendent, as fine as any in the Springs, and far better than most. Worth every minute it'll take you to get to Castle Rock.

Built in 1888, outgrown by its congregation in 1966, vacant until 1975 when some visionary remodeled it into a restaurant, and transformed in July of last year when Chuck and Lisa Campbell took possession, this charming stone building has original and newer stained-glass windows, tables and high-backed oak chairs where aisles once were, and additional seating in the choir loft above. A cozy table for two sits in the former confessional nook ("Darling, I have something to tell you ..."). With muted lighting above, stone walls sheltering you and carpeting softening the noise of conversation, the atmosphere becomes both intimate and boisterous. Add to that the crisp table linens, the focaccia served in a silver tray with a chimichurra dipping sauce, the beautiful service plates, and, before you've even taken a bite, you'll know things are done right.

One could, blindfolded, toss a dart at the menu and be happy with one's selection. Eyes wide open, it took us a bit longer to decide, but we ended up sated on three appetizers, two salads, the Chef's Soup of the Moment, and four of the 12 entrees.

Five first-course selections ($7.95 -- $10.95) range from the ubiquitous to the exotic. We passed on the Oysters Rockefeller and crab cakes and started with Wild Mushroom Bruscetta. Many restaurants offer bruschetta but none as tasty as these. The mushrooms were juicy, the Roma tomatoes were sweet; both flavors were nicely set off by the blue cheese crumbled on top. Our two other starters were more eclectic: Lobster and shrimp wontons came with a tamarind sesame sauce, a little sweet, a little savory, a little plummy -- the complexity of the sauce a fair match for the crisp wonton wrappers and the simple seafood filling. Like the Asian Caesar salad we had in the next course, this dish showcases chef Tasha Stepelton's own brand of pan-Asian fusion cooking.

The third appetizer was the most daring. Scallops wrapped in prosciutto served on an artichoke crown in a saffron tarragon sauce. So many flavors struggling for understanding and harmony. And succeeding.

Our soup was a lobster bisque, made, our server told us, on a dare. At a San Francisco Fisherman's Wharf restaurant with co-workers from the Old Stone Church, Chef Tasha claimed she could make a better bisque than the one they were eating. They called her bluff; we all benefited. It's the best lobster bisque I've ever tasted: rich with seafood flavor without being cloying. I was getting the impression that betting on Chef Tasha was a sure thing.

Joining the Asian Caesar in our second course (all items are $4.95) was a salad of baby spinach with Mandarin oranges and almonds in a blackberry vinaigrette. It was like salad and dessert at once.

The range of third-course entrees (pasta, seafood, elk, lamb, pork, chicken, beef, priced from $14.95 to $24.95) is ambitious for a restaurant of this size. That each of the four we tried was exquisite attests to the talent at the Old Stone Church.

Simple dishes, often the toughest to do well, are a good measure of a cook's commitment to quality. There are few fireworks in a dish like linguini with mozzarella and basil in a pomodoro sauce. It's either terrific or it's Chef Boyardee. The freshness of the ingredients here and the perfect tomato sauce made this as good as linguini gets.

The vibrant balance of colors in the presentations made looking at our food almost as wonderful as eating it. The linguini, of course, had all the colors of the Italian flag. The halibut topped with gorgonzola and pistachios floated on a glowing raspberry sauce the color of rubies with al dente green beans squaring off each quadrant of the plate. The Pepper-seared Salmon in all its pinkness sat next to a wonton wrapper filled with crispy black rice. And each dish tasted even better than it looked.

Fruit sauces and reductions prevail, a manifestation of Chef Tasha's years cooking on yachts in the Caribbean. A blueberry barbecue sauce takes pork chops to a new level; an orange chipotle glaze does the same for a grilled New York strip steak.

Fruit also plays a supporting role in desserts: The Fallen Chocolate Souffl is balanced by a raspberry mango sauce; Blackberry Crme Brulee has a fruit colis as a sidekick; the bread pudding features dried cherries. We tried several desserts, including the caramelized Pecan Tart with coffee crme Anglais. By the end of the meal, there was not an unbeliever at the table.

The Old Stone Church menu will shift seasonal gears in the next few weeks; lighter summertime fare will prevail. One dish I hope remains is the rock crab crepe -- crab meat and oyster mushrooms wrapped in an orange and scallion pancake, dolloped with a lemon butter sauce. Just the thing for a sultry summer night along with a bottle of something crisp from the very nice wine list. Annual staff trips to Napa Valley raise the collective wine awareness and assure that the list is representative of the best, and the best bargains, Napa offers. Such trips probably help staff morale, but I'd only be guessing. I do know that a trip to Castle Rock helped ours.


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