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A GRILL FROM THE OLD NEIGHBORHOOD

The north Boulder neighborhood has always seemed slightly out of step, a modest Fifties enclave in a town that's otherwise consciously--and constantly--at the cutting edge.

But the area took a great leap forward with the update of the North Broadway Shops and the adjacent Community Plaza. The design company on the job decided to accentuate rather than obscure the strip mall's Fifties feel, and it added enough neon to give this row of stores the appearance of one huge, hip diner.

Now all the place needed was a restaurant that could withstand the glare of culinary scrutiny. That gap was filled two years ago, when Stephen Leblang turned a run-down liquor store into the Market Grill, an impressive little eatery that deserves to be a destination on the metro dining map rather than just a neighborhood stop.

For seventeen years Leblang has run the kitchen at the Chautauqua Dining Hall, where he serves rather sophisticated fare to a summer-only crowd. For the Grill, however, Leblang decided to go with a more eclectic menu.

"The market I have next door, I've had that in there for years," he says. "Customers kept saying to me, `Why don't you open a restaurant along here? This neighborhood really needs something.' So I decided I wanted to go with simple grilled meats and overall casual, creative dining that wasn't already overdone."

In the process, Leblang somehow managed to keep the plaza's flashy exterior from spilling inside the restaurant. As long as you sit facing the back--thus avoiding any suggestion of neon--the dining room seems warm and relaxed, sort of Martha Stewart meets Little House on the Prairie, with big ol' hutches filled with pottery and dried flora, and red-and-white-checked cloths covering the tables.

Placed on these down-home tables, though, are dishes from a mishmash of a menu filled with trendy pizzas and California-ish interpretations of international favorites (including several stops along the Mediterranean) that somehow avoid becoming cliches--and quite often rise to culinary greatness.

A refreshing air of experimentation blows from the kitchen. It first tickled our palates in the form of an appetizer of steamed New Zealand mussels and Manila clams ($5.50). The mollusks, still in their shells, rested in a thin sea of black-bean sauce sweetened with molasses and spiced with red chiles. After the shellfish was gone, I used the dinner rolls to soak up every last drop of the wonderful liquid.

The rolls--made on the premises, faintly flavored with parmesan and served with a cruet of olive oil--were tasty enough to stand on their own, however, and a sympathetic staffer kept our basket replenished throughout the meal. For diners who still haven't had enough, the restaurant sells the rolls to go, a dozen for $3. Like the rest of the Market Grill's offerings, that's a good deal--recently made even better when Leblang lowered most of his prices. "I think we need to stay in the range of a neighborhood restaurant," he says. "I don't want to lose the people who have supported us all this time."

But he also wants to build up business, which is why he made some menu alterations at the same time. One of the key changes was removing appetizers from the printed menu and instead having servers suggest that night's specials when diners order. "I've found that they sell better when they're announced," Leblang explains. "And this way, we only have to stock what's necessary for the two or three we offer daily."

The shellfish dish is on the rotation list, as is the citrus-crusted goat cheese ($5.95) we tried. The cheese was absolutely fresh, and while bearing only hints of lemon, went well with the mellow red-pepper coulis. But the real winner was a grilled portobello ($5.75). This mushroom is popping up on menus faster than fungus on a tree stump, but its popularity is justified: The portobello is so meaty and earthy that it can take the place of a hamburger on a bun or be tossed on the grill and presented simply with a side of A-1. At the Market Grill, the accompanying sauce was a slick of anchovy oil studded with capers and minced garlic; a smattering of arugula and fresh basil cut through the richness. And on the side, an olive-heavy tapenade spread across tiny crostini repeated the caper-and-anchovy theme. This was one of those combinations that remind you that life is worth living--to the fullest.

After such a promising start, our soups were surprisingly lacking. The blandness of the Caribbean black-bean soup ($2.25 a cup) was relieved only by a thin quarter of fried banana. The forgettable creamy potato soup ($2.25 a cup) was strong on potatoes but light on flavor. The kitchen started its comeback with the salad ($2.50), whose red zinfandel vinaigrette brought a welcome blast of tart vinegar eased by wine.

And other uncomplicated but inspired pairings cropped up in the entrees. Wine was again the predominant factor in venison au poivre ($14.95), which came bathed in a Pinot Noir sauce that had been so reduced it had the consistency of a glaze but still retained some of the wine's light tanginess. The sauce enhanced the otherwise mild meat, four medallions of venison no gamier than your average farm animal. The meat had been gently grilled and teamed with a roasted pear and a drift of chestnut spaetzle (say shpetsla, shpetzl or shpetzlee--they're all correct) that had been boiled, then fried until each itty-bitty dumpling had a buttery crust. Also off the grill was the salmon filet ($13.95), which arrived perched atop a cloud of potatoes whipped with a garlicky pesto and drizzled with a tangy tomato vinaigrette whose bite stemmed from the ripeness of the fruit.

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