For years, people who love to dine out have been awaiting the Chapel Grille, arguably the most handsome restaurant in Rhode Island, perched atop Chapel View overlooking the Garden City section of Cranston. After much anticipation, it opened in December, serving dinner every night of the week to crowds of curious food lovers.
Designed to look like an English manor with stained glass windows, Chapel Grille has at least five separate dining areas, and there will be more come spring when a terrace with a retractable roof opens. The main level dining room – with a soaring ceiling and massive fireplace that has an unusual blown glass sculpture mounted above it – seats 50 people. With its ivory and gold color scheme, the room has a warm glow. Beyond that is the conservatory with its many windows: a brighter room that accommodates 70, ideal for a boutique wedding. The cathedral bar is home to an extraordinary S-shaped onyx bar with two dozen stools and additional seating that offers dinner guests a glimpse inside the open kitchen. The best seat in the house can be found above all this, in the loft, where as many as 40 people can gather for private dinners and business meetings, with a view of the action in the bar area. The lower level houses the wine salon, a large space filled with creamy white leather sofas, ottomans and the restaurant’s temperature-controlled wine cellar. On busy nights, that area is transformed into yet another dining room for 100 guests. Four sets of massive French doors open out to the terrace, certain to be a popular spot next summer.
The staff at Chapel Grille is as well put together as the interior design. It’s a veritable who’s who on the Rhode Island restaurant scene, headlined by Executive Chef Tim Kelly who dazzled us for more than a decade at Café Nuovo in Providence. His chef de cuisine is Manuel Ojeda, with Alberto Lopez as the sous chef. At the front of the house is Joe Barone, whom I once proclaimed the best waiter in Rhode Island back when he was at Agora, the former restaurant inside the Westin Hotel.
Dressed in spotless chef's whites, Kelly popped into the main dining area the night we were there, making the rounds to make sure his old fans and new customers were pleased and satisfied. At our table, he talked about the Mediterranean-influenced menu, which he had to admit is big – especially compared to all the hot new restaurants that are offering very limited menus with merely a half-dozen entrees in some cases. Kelly’s menu might be big, but it is not pretentious.
To begin , our ever-smiling and ever-helpful server, Lorena, brought to our table a basket of warm breads – crusty Italian, savory olive, and a luscious foccacia – along with not one, but four bottles of olive oil. A special dipping tray allowed us to try the breads in oils from California, Greece, Italy and Spain. Not surprisingly, we favored the Italian olive oil, but only after countless dippings.
Appetizers ($8 to $17) include the requisite Rhode Island calamari, oysters on the half shell, and five hearth oven pizzas, including one with duck confit, goat cheese, figs and baby arugula. Things get even more exciting with a fried shrimp cocktail, spicy fried chicken pops, and a basic Caprese salad layered with decadent burrata cheese and a touch of black lava salt. One of the best things we ate that night was the Deviled Bantam Farm Egg ($8), sent to us as an amuse-bouche. The petite egg was perfectly cooked and garnished with chives, celery leaves and smoked paprika. What we especially liked was the drizzle of black truffle oil and a sprinkling of Parmigiano Reggiano, the king of all Italian cheeses.
For my appetizer, I chose the Hot Italian Buns ($8), simply because you can tell a lot about a restaurant by how it does the basics. This dish consisted of two golden balls of baked Italian bread on a bright bed of marinara sauce. Inside each ball was a meatball, made with the correct combination of ground beef, veal and pork, with a little mozzarella cheese thrown in for added flavor. This is a very filling first course, perfect for two to share.
My dining companion took a lighter route with the Vegetarian Minestrone ($6), a large bowl of a delicate tomato broth chock-full of carrots, celery, green beans, zucchini and cannelloni beans. On the side was a single crostini covered with pesto – a Tuscan specialty.
At this point, another amuse-bouche arrived at our table. It was a single sea scallop, caramelized and cooked to a perfect state of doneness, almost underdone. It was dressed with sautéed romaine leaves, extra virgin olive oil and Meyer lemon. A dab of quince puree turned this simple mouthful of food into something sublime.
The entrée side of the menu holds nearly two dozen dishes ($15 to $33), plus seven pasta offerings ($14 to $24). Wisely, they offer the pastas in half portions – although I for one can never get enough of a classic Bolognese. From the small plate side of the menu, I selected the Wood-Grilled Baby Lamb Chops ($18), and my dining companion ordered the Veal Francaise ($21) from the large plate column. This classic veal dish may sound French in origin, but it is most definitely Italian, especially under Chef Kelly’s deft hand. He naps tender veal cutlets with a velvety lemon sauce. Accompaniments include Gnocchi Fiorentina (that’s gnocchi made with spinach, which I found a bit heavy) and an amazing zucchini pappardelle (ribbons of very thinly sliced zucchini made to look like pappardelle pasta).
When Lorena placed the lamb chops before me, I couldn’t help but ask, “That’s a small plate?” Four thick chops sat on an oblong plate with a modest mound of olive oil mashed potatoes and wilted spinach at one end. The mashed potatoes made with olive oil are a specialty of the house, and you can get them tricked out with everything from lobster to bacon and caramelized onion. As I cut into the first chop, nicely charred on the outside, I could see it was medium-rare pink on the inside, just as I requested. Wonderfully tender and succulent, the meaty chops had a distinctive flavor and made for a very elegant dinner experience. A tiny ramekin of olive tapenade begged for attention so I dipped each bit of lamb into the Provencal mixture of finely chopped olives, capers and anchovies.
The small and large plates all come with well-selected accompaniments, from the pistachio-stuffed polenta with the duck breast to the risotto Milanese with the braised beef short ribs. The grille and plancha dishes are offered with a choice of two sides. The choices were plentiful – Parmesan-crusted polenta, penne with vodka sauce, and grilled asparagus, to name just three.
Some of the menu items sport the word “plancha,” such as the Crispy Norwegian Salmon a la Plancha. Plancha is a flat-top grill that resembles a griddle, but its heating element is circular rather than straight, resulting in an extremely hot and even cooking surface. The first flat-top grills originated in Spain and were known as planchas. With a plancha, you can also cook over low even heat, which caramelizes some of the natural sugars in the food, as in the case of the Plancha Caramelized Sea Scallops at Chapel Grille.
Just about every restaurant has a dessert menu, but here it is a sumptuous dessert cart (with items priced between $3 and $5), which a pastry chef wheels into the various dining areas. It’s easy for me to say no thanks to the written word, but I found it impossible to pass up the visual display of precious desserts at Chapel Grille. I adored the Tropical Cheesecake, more sweet than tangy, topped with finely chopped tropical fruits. My only wish is that there had been more. But the Cookie Platter made up for that with its abundance of biscotti, mini cannoli, and chocolate-on-chocolate macarons (meringue-based French confections that truly do melt in your mouth).
Our long wait is over – the Chapel Grille is now open.
Linda Beaulieu is the author of The Providence and Rhode Island Cookbook, available at stores throughout the state.