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LET US GIVE THANKS

Blessedly spared from Catholic schooling by a mother forced to convert long before Vatican II, I nonetheless endured the rigors of CCD (that's Catholic Sunday school to the lay folk), with its ruler-wielding nuns and interminably long prayers. One Sunday Sister Agnes didn't appear at class, and half an hour later someone (not me, I swear) came up with the brilliant idea that we should play "sardines" in the empty church. So we snuck in one by one, each quickly discovering the rest of the group hiding in the most obvious place: the confessional. When about half of us were stuffed inside, the door suddenly flew open and there stood Monsignor Conroy, trying not to laugh as he admonished us with something like, "Use the church only for worship, my children."

Fortunately, no such constraints exist at The Old Stone Church in Castle Rock, the perfect place to do penance after busting your credit limit at the nearby outlet mall.

"We've been decommissioned, unblessed, you name it," says owner Jeff Richard, a Culinary Institute of America-trained chef who picked up this, his first restaurant, three and a half years ago. "The Archdiocese even came in and removed the stained-glass window of the Last Supper. They said it was sacrilegious to leave it in there."

Nowadays, though, the Church wouldn't be a bad place for that final meal. Richard has assembled an eclectic menu of New Orleans-style, Southwestern and Chinese dishes. To find such food in Castle Rock--hardly a bastion of fine dining--is close to a miracle.

"The previous owners served steak and potatoes, baked ham, that kind of stuff," Richard says. "But it wasn't doing well, and the guy had had it on the market for years. When I came to him and told him what I wanted to do with the place, he told me to get lost. He thought I was some punk kid."

The Church had been a restaurant of one sort or another since 1975, nine years after it was abandoned by a growing congregation. Richard reconfigured and updated the space, which had been poorly designed for restaurant work. The creamy colors, beautiful stained-glass windows and muted lighting provide a soothing setting for romance, kicking back or quiet reflection--and the former confessional, while not ideal for "sardines," is just right for an intimate table for two.

The sinfully delicious duck-liver mousse ($5.95) seemed an appropriate prelude for our evening at the Church. The light, airy pate was sweetness itself, thanks to pear brandy, butter and fresh thyme. It arrived surrounded by grapes, strawberries, kiwi, pineapple and oranges, as well as crackers and toast points--adding up to plenty of appetizer for four. Not knowing that, however, we'd ordered the chile relleno ($4.75), a lightly breaded Anaheim pepper stuffed with cheddar and Monterey Jack cheeses and sun-dried tomatoes, the latter wasted under a feta-studded pepper butter (reduced to a runny sauce) that commanded all the attention.

Green chiles also stood out in the queso dip ($4.95), a lumpy mixture of cheddar and Monterey Jack cheeses served with an insurmountable pile of tortilla chips. At first the dip's consistency was great, but as it cooled, trying to load a chip with any cheese was like wrestling with the Devil.

The rest of the meal offered redemption, however. One mixed-greens salad came lightly coated with an angelic champagne-and-poppyseed dressing; the other with a sweet-and-sour-tasting raspberry vinaigrette that Richard adds one egg yolk to "so the waitstaff can keep it emulsified." I was so taken with the salads (and heavily into a friendly argument with my mother-in-law over whether the Sixties were responsible for the decline of civilization) that I neglected to keep my father-in-law from polishing off his potato soup before I could taste it. "It was good," he said with a sheepish grin.

I was quicker with his entree, the New Orleans scampi ($12.95). The generous portion of medium-size shrimp offered a nice, mellow fusion of lemon and butter, with just a hint of garlic rather than the usual overdose. The sauce on the salmon ($14.95) was just as sublime--a delicate reduction of champagne and butter that elevated the tender fillet to righteous levels. I rubbed the side dish, a melange of steamed summer squash and red peppers, into the leftover sauce and then used a spoon to get the last drop. Unfortunately, the kitchen's subtle, sparing hand with the spices didn't help the shrimp pasta ($12.95), a HealthMark preparation that tossed linguini with fresh vegetables (broccoli chief among them), shrimp and not enough sundried-tomato pesto.

It would be impossible to get enough of the Church's prime rib ($11.95). Each bite had us giving thanks for the kitchen staff, which clearly knows how to slow-roast a cow--and even cut its own meat. Our one-and-a-half-inch-thick, ten-ounce slab was cooked to a perfect medium rare, so evenly done it almost didn't look real.

Even the homemade desserts were heavenly, and well worth the standard $3 charge. The Church is particularly adept at ice creams, integral parts of two of our choices: the Oreo pie and the flourless chocolate souffle cake, one of the better versions I've had of this exceedingly popular item. The cake was less dense and rich than those I've tried before, and more like an upscale brownie; it went well with the far richer homemade vanilla ice cream. The Oreo pie had an intense cookie taste, and while the accompanying peach ice cream wasn't exactly complementary, it was excellent in its own right. A raspberry creme brulee--fresh, creamy and not too sweet--completed this unholy trinity.

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