After years of planning and a multimillion dollar renovation, Chapel Grille is an instant hit, with an expansive Mediterranean menu that largely succeeds.
Photography by Angel Tucker
3000 Chapel View Blvd., Cranston, 944-4900, chapelgrilleri.com. Hours Open daily for lunch and dinner. Reservations suggested. Wheelchair accessible. Lot and valet parking. Cuisine Mediterranean features with an American backbone. Capacity 400. Vibe Country club mixed with neighborhood hangout. Prices Appetizers $6–$19, entrees $14–$33, desserts $7-$8. Karen’s picks Plancha sea scallops, lobster and preserved lemon risotto, steaks and chops.
Key Fair Good Very Good Excellent Half-star
No one at Chapel Grille’s sprawling, three-diner deep bar seems to think trading holy water for spirits is sacrilegious. If they did, you’d know it. The crowd at this six-month-old property is boisterous bordering on rowdy, a fitting persona for a project nearly fifteen years and millions of dollars in the making. Though the rustic stone walls and celestial vaulted ceiling remain intact, there is little presence of nineteenth century asceticism; in its place, a gilded space in which floral arrangements stand six feet tall and chandeliers illuminate from atmospheric height. Spanning five different dining rooms, the interior design recalls several decades of style, though principally the ’80s in its unabashed mixture of metallic and pastel hues. There’s a passing resemblance to L’Epicureo’s second incarnation — with its supersized Renaissance portraits — though the oversized everything is far more at home here. Against the earthy rocks and lumber of the original 1891 chapel, walls are flecked in gold, saturated in halogen light and covered in blown glass sculptures that evoke aquatic exploration.
Bar aside, the dining rooms feel much like a country club, in part because the property is sprawling and, in part, because the beige and gold seating and brocade wallpaper evoke formal banquets in the making. Space downstairs is set aside for just that purpose and no wonder; the place is filled to capacity with locals who have finally found a home base. As it turns out, the clientele is as colorful as the restaurant itself: loaded with jewelry, perfume and stories that are shared oratorically at the white onyx bar.
Executive chef Tim Kelly, formerly of Cafe Nuovo, has been at the helm of the restaurant long before it opened its doors, and the regular diners should seem familiar to him. Like Nuovo, it’s rare to see people in their twenties unless it’s a family outing. Two to three decades older than that is the average and it’s commonplace to see old cronies reconnect in the walkways. On a typical night, a gregarious guest hugs three separate diners on the periphery of the room before declaring that she went to grade school with the maître d and, by the time Alan Shawn Feinstein sits down for a pizza, the nuclear neighborhood is fully at ease.
Accordingly (even presciently), Kelly has designed a menu that appeals to those who want out of the house but not unknown terrain. The menu’s foundation is clearly Italian though, like Nuovo, Chapel embraces its namesake grill as well as a certain degree of showmanship. Not surprisingly, the latter is most evident in appetizers and “petite” dishes, a category that joins tapas, small plates, shared plates and a burgeoning number of other constructed courses.
Like the menu, the staff is bountiful and diverse, some old school, others just entering the professional world. As they place a quartet of olive oils on the table, some offer nothing more than geographic origin — Italy, Greece, Spain and California — while the truly dedicated dispense flavor profiles reminiscent of an eHarmony synopsis (“the Spanish is very quiet, very sensitive”). All are happy to lead you through your meal with recommendations, anecdotes and assessments. “That’s a fine piece of meat,” responds one server to an inquiry. “It’ll treat you right.” Well, alright.
The best dish on the menu, easily, is risotto. In any rendition, it’s superbly cooked but at its best when paired with preserved lemon, asparagus and a flaming grilled lobster tail on top ($18). Kelly and his formidable staff, led by chef de cuisine Manuel Ojeda and sous chefs, Alberto Lopez and Teuddys Espino, have drilled technique into the hands of everyone in the kitchen. It’s rare to find things cooked improperly, even in a dish as finicky as risotto. Plancha caramelized scallops (note the strong Spanish streak) are equally precise. Served with a slightly sweet quince puree and Meyer lemon ($15), it’s a plate both balanced and vibrant.
The challenge, however, with a kitchen this large is subjectivity, which shows up in seasoning. Seared filet of beef with a soft poached egg ($19; yep, we’re still on small dishes) can’t be faulted technically. But the indulgently rich ingredients (steak + egg + hollandaise + cauliflower puree) need some salt or acid to counter the tongue-coating decadence. So, too, with the likable deviled eggs ($7), which personify the restaurant’s appeal: updated with threads of spun parmesan but nearly Midwestern in presentation, the “ovum” orbs rest on nothing more complicated than some iceberg lettuce.
Ironically, the weakest dishes are those that require less attention from the frenetic line. The Chapel Grille paella ($27) lacks cohesiveness, with nothing connecting the linguica, shrimp and pork belly ribs together other than nondescript rice. In the same vein, gnocchi fiorentina with braised veal ($21) has little flavor in either the pasta or ragout. Even the signature olive oil mashed potatoes ($6–$11), with bacon and caramelized onions, spicy crab or truffle oil, lack the substantiality of the cream-based favorite.
That being said, steaks and chops remain steadfastly accomplished. Moreover, Kelly has renounced the miserly a la carte approach and presents meat not only with ample pools of steak, piri piri or maple-dijon sauce but something more substantive than a sprig of parsley. Thank the lord! — the saucier has a job again and vegetables are back in vogue. Even the small crocks of broiled polenta (pots de polenta, so to speak) achieve where potatoes fall flat, full of cheese and culinary life.
This, of course, only comes into play if you commit to a full meal. Though the numerous dining rooms (christened like a game of Clue: living room, conservatory and upstairs choir loft) are persistently packed, they appear empty next to the frenzied bar where two dozen plush stools are at least four dozen too few. The crowds socialize shamelessly over pizza and cocktails though the gregarious masses are often seen shoveling in a few forkfuls of desserts amidst the jocularity.
Erin Farrar, Chapel’s pastry chef, keeps things capricious. Though there are Italian staples — affogato and tiramisu — the main draw is chocolate in various renditions: a dark, one-note chocolate layer cake, cupcakes topped with marshmallow cream and served with a demitasse of hot chocolate and a triple chocolate mousse with salted caramel crunch and chocolate “dirt.” None are entirely novel but, like most things, they walk the line. It’s an approach Chapel Grille’s audience readily embraces — perhaps not Sunday morning but with full-on reverence the night before.