Second Helpings

Like Manna From Heaven

Between nine straight hours of slogging through the outlet stores and several more writing Christmas cards, the holidays always cry out for us to find time to get away from it all and pamper ourselves.

For that, I turn to the Old Stone Church in Castle Rock.

Still looking like the beautiful place of worship it once was, the Church continues to be a mecca for some kind of reverence or another, whether your particular religion be food or wine ("Let Us Give Thanks," October 5, 1994). After a year under new ownership -- in 1999, Chuck and Lisa Campbell took over the place from Jeff Richards, who retained ownership of the building and property he'd maintained since 1991 -- and a new chef, Tasha Stapleton, the serene, elegant restaurant offers just the kind of joyous occasion that takes the edge off the stresses of the season.

Sunday brunch is the obvious best choice for the Church, which counts stained-glass windows, cream-colored walls and white linens among its glorious offerings. Sadly, the original stained-glass window of the Last Supper that once hung in the now-decommissioned building was taken out by the Denver Archdiocese because it was deemed sacrilegious to leave it, but plenty of holy reminders remain, including the much-coveted table in the confessional, which makes for some fine romantic dining. But not on Sundays, when the place is filled with families and churchgoers of another sort.

They're all there to commune -- at a good price, I might add -- over such innovative goodies as the "soup of the moment" (maybe because a moment is all we're sure of?), which, during our visit, was a super-rich cream of asparagus and wild mushroom concoction, packed with the flavors of both vegetables and devilishly rich. The Caesar salad, too, was interesting, an Asian take that included a ginger-spiked, soy-enhanced dressing that didn't compete with the garlic or saltiness of the traditional flavors. The salad of organic baby greens suffered by comparison, not only because they were out of the greens and substituted -- without checking with me, by the way, which I think is cheesy -- chopped-up romaine, but also because the sweet, tart blackberry vinaigrette wasn't as complex. An extra icing-slicked cinnamon roll might have soothed things, but we'd already eaten so much from the complimentary bread basket, including fresh-baked focaccia, poppyseed muffins, cranberry scones and homemade croissants, that we wouldn't have had room for the rest of the meal.

And we wanted to partake of as much of that as possible, especially the appealing huevos rancheros, which consisted of top sirloin beneath two fried eggs, soft black beans on the side, a jalapeño-fired salsa fresca, tortillas, and a mild chipotle cream sauce in which to dip it all. But while the huevos were the best of the four entrees we tried at brunch, the other three were also worthy of our attention: chunks of corned beef hashed with sweet potatoes and poached eggs, all covered with a textbook béarnaise; eggs Benedict in a grapefruit-colored, citrus-flavored hollandaise, with green-pepper-flecked ranch-style potatoes on the side; and poached eggs and mushroom sauce atop a snow crab au gratin, the only downside of which was too much crab, since it made the dish watery.

In fact, the only sin the Church committed during the main course was in not cooking the Benedict eggs all the way through as we'd requested. As soon as a server discovered the problem, however, the offending meal was whisked away and returned before the rest of us had cleaned our plates.

No such intervention was needed on a return trip for a quick dinner, which once again included a basket of baked goodies. The entrees were the same kind of creative combinations we'd enjoyed at brunch. We were enraptured by the halibut topped with Gorgonzola and pistachios, which featured an evenly cooked piece of fish that had sopped up the sharp, nutty flavors of the toppings; the sides of oven-roasted potatoes and haricots verts that were napped by a small pool of raspberry sauce perfectly balanced the richness of the fish. And the grilled, orange-glazed New York strip steak arrived impeccably medium-rare, accompanied by roasted purple Peruvian potatoes, an unusual and stunning pea-sweetened guacamole, and a sweet-and-sour chutney sparked by jalapeños.

Figure in the to-die-for desserts (which included a celestial fallen chocolate soufflé and a very good version of pecan pie), the savvy service, a divine atmosphere and a smartly chosen, well-priced wine list -- Chuck Campbell used to be a manager at the California Cafe and Barolo Grill -- and this is an experience worth praising. If getting through the holidays is your own personal Purgatory, the Old Stone Church is a heavenly reward.