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LUNAR LANDING

There's no surer way to send an executive chef running for the aspirin bottle than to tell him that the pastry chef served forty slices of pie burned black on the bottom, or that the prep cook forgot to grill the shrimp required for that evening's special, or that the pantry person added a cup of salt instead of sugar to the salad dressing. Most kitchens have written recipes--some as informal as napkins thumbtacked to the wall--and explicit rules for following them, but the head chef can't monitor every station all the time. Someone's often on the wrong page of the cookbook.

And the head chef's headache only gets worse when the kitchen is trying to stage a comeback with new employees or a new menu or a new top toque--or all three. That's the situation at the two-year-old Full Moon Grill in Boulder. The main man at the Full Moon is owner Rick Stein, a former antiques dealer who has filled the place with enormous stone pigs from Bali and quirky wall hangings that betray his former occupation. Stein also worked for a time at Boulder's Two Bitts Bistro, which is where he fell in love with the restaurant business.

But while his Full Moon quickly rose to prominence, its popularity began to fall almost as fast. So last September Stein lured chef Bradford Heap away from Boulder's Pearl Street Inn. "When I came on board, we lost pretty much the whole kitchen," says Heap, who became a partner in January. "Since we've all started from scratch, there have been some growing pains."

Not that those aches and pains are noticeable in the dining room. Here all of Heap's attention to fresh ingredients, his emphasis on daily specials rather than a locked-in menu, and the creative-yet-sound attitude he displayed at the Inn are readily evident. Once an odd combination of meat loaf, Thai chicken and tired Italian pastas, the Full Moon roster now concentrates on health-conscious Northern Italian accompanied by homemade breads from the heavens and enlivened by Heap's willingness to experiment.

Sometimes the staff trips up on his innovations, though, as it did with the smoked salmon appetizer ($6.95). This pagoda of lightly fried pasta sheets layered with smoked fish is a signature dish of Heap's, but the Full Moon's version wasn't the same one I'd encountered at the Inn. Rather than a wonderful melding of flavors, this was an onion sandwich. The salmon had been mixed with a thin herbed mayonnaise and shallots--and a little shallot goes a long way. When I later ask Heap what happened to the dish, he confesses that someone mistakenly used a tablespoon of shallots rather than the teaspoon required. "I really want to get to that next level with this restaurant," Heap explains. "So I'm pushing my people hard, but I think I need to sit down with them and review the basics. It's the classic problem with quality control."

It may not be as big a problem as Heap fears, for the salmon was the only part of our dinner that struck a wrong note; the rest was pure harmony. A second appetizer of pan-fried polenta ($6.95) arrived as a slice of smooth cornmeal cake paired with a classic duo--a grilled Bosc pear and and a light Gorgonzola sauce--with a sprinkling of pine nuts across the top. The soup of the day ($2.95) was another melodious blend of carrots and garlic offset by a dollop of cream. "We have to be careful with fat here in Boulder, you know," Heap says. "I am always striving to come up with ways to make things taste rich without their actually being rich."

A perfect example of that philosophy is the fedellini with wild mushrooms ($13.95), which Heap says he first tried with a cream sauce. "I backed away from that quickly," he says. "It just drowned out the mushrooms." Fungus fans will applaud the dish's pared-down simplicity. It tasted of mushrooms, mushrooms and more wild mushrooms, and Heap had turned up the intensity even more by deglazing the pan with sherry wine and sherry vinegar. The stew special ($15.95) started with a Chardonnay and shallot broth, then packed in monkfish, sea bass and mussels. The mussels were the real stars; they'd sponged up the shallots' essence and nearly melted in our mouths (not a typical description for these semi-chewy mollusks). The monkfish was an inspired addition to the pot, for the fish's lobsterlike flavor was a natural with the buttery Chardonnay base. "I'm trying to order carefully so we don't have fish going into the next day," Heap says, which explains why only four tables were able to enjoy the monkfish with their stews.

The diners next to us had to settle for extra mussels and bass, but they weren't complaining. They enjoy the new Full Moon too much to do that. "This place was awful before that Bradford Heap came here," one woman told the group. "We come all the time now."

I would, too, if the strawberry-rhubarb cobbler ($3.95) were on the regular dessert menu. The fruit was sweet and syrupy, baked with brown sugar, a little flour to soak up the juices and a hint of butter. The result was like an Amish woman in a Bill Blass dress: simple and old-fashioned underneath, but dressed to kill. Not nearly as stunning but still fabulous was the gratin of berries ($4.95), in this case strawberries, raspberries and blackberries fused together under a nutmeg streusel and a melting blob of Gelato Bravo's vanilla-bean gelato.

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