Thursday, 6 August 2009

Heaven's Kitchen

Something a little different from my usual writing, I think you’ll agree. What follows is a restaurant review. My uncle Ahmed and his partner Cathy have turned a disused chapel in rural Somerset into a gorgeous restaurant with mouth-watering food.

Rear view of At The Chapel

Called, simply enough, At The Chapel, my uncle’s restaurant in Bruton was converted from a chapel. The exterior walls of the building remain unchanged, as it’s a listed building, but the interiors have been revamped, to the extent that it no longer looks like a place of worship. The walls are a pure snow white, and the wooden floors echo beneath your feet. The stained glass windows were modernised, and although the colour is lost, it makes the place brighter and seem more comfortable. Most impressive in the main seating area of the restaurant and bar, is the sculpture of an ethereal being – called, aptly enough, The Angel – painted the same white as the walls. This is the only reminder that you are inside what was once the village chapel.

Brother and sister

My uncle is a carpenter by trade, and all of the wooden furniture you see, including the bar, stools, tables and chairs, were all made by him. Even more impressive is the wood-burning oven where all the pizzas are made. The basement, where some of the kitchens, seating area and the toilets are, was created from scratch, and the stone dug out from beneath the chapel was used to create the oven. An interesting talking piece is the wooden logs and large marble ‘pebbles’ used as casual seats around the place. The limestone tiles in the basement leading to the toilets are from the Blue Lias, dating back to the late Triassic and early Jurassic periods, around 200 million years ago. As such, some of the tiles contain fossil molluscs.

Me and my uncle

Not only is At The Chapel a restaurant, but Ahmed and Cathy sell wine and freshly baked bread to locals and those from further afield. The well-stocked bar serves popular alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, as well as tea and coffee, and home made crisps. When we finished our drinks, we were seated in a room apart from the main atrium. This isn’t because we were getting preferential treatment; it’s because there was no space for us on a hectic Saturday night! Due to bookings by such groups as a gaggle of girls on a hen party, and it being our last night in the region, we were given the privilege of a private room.

Mozzarella and basil pizza

On to the food then; it’s like Gordon Ramsey without the pretension. The menu consists of stunning food, of the order you’d expect to find in a top end London restaurant, but for a fraction of the price. Such well-made food is rare and hard to come by in these times of cost-cutting. Our party of five decided to have two pizzas to share for starters: one came with pure tomato and herb sauce, buffalo mozzarella and fresh basil; the other with the same sauce, goat’s cheese and various herbs.

Goats cheese and herbs

It is easy to tell that this is no shop-bought pizza sauce; the flavours show right through. It’s even possible to tell that the mozzarella is no cow cheese. We were told that the chefs were sent to Italy to learn how to create authentic pizzas. It must have been worth the cost; these are the best pizzas I’ve ever had.

My Chapel burger: I stole my sister's egg!

An assortment of eight different dishes was on offer for the main course, not including the various pizzas. I went for the Chapel burger. Simply a giant meatball of beef, onion and herbs in a huge homemade bap with rocket salad and ginormous circles of onion, served with chips. Too big I couldn’t eat it all. I noticed a hint of Mediterranean cooking in the way the burger contained mint and parsley, and it was reminiscent of traditional Cypriot meatballs called köfte.

Sea trout with salad nicoise (without egg!)

Slow-roasted tomatoes, red peppers and goats cheese

Chargrilled lamb leg with chard and horseradish sauce

Other dishes ordered by my party included a fillet of sea trout on a salad nicoise, slow-roasted tomatoes and red peppers with goat’s cheese; and chargrilled lamb leg with chard and horseradish sauce. The menu, however, changes not only seasonally, using ingredients that are currently bountiful, but also daily, depending on what’s in stock and what they can source from local farmers, butchers and fishmongers.

Eton mess

Desserts were suitably rich: the two that our party had were Eton mess (strawberries, meringue and whipped cream all mixed together in a huge mess) and chocolate fudge pot. Me and my sister ordered the latter: it consisted of rich dark chocolate and was finished with a dollop of clotted cream, a sprig of mint and a generous helping of blackcurrant jam. Yes, you read that correctly: it is a combination that I’d never heard of but, by golly, it works. The sweetness of the jam, combined with the crunchiness of the seeds, sets off the rich gooey confection of the chocolate fudge.

Chocolate fudge pot with clotted cream and blackcurrant jam

By this point, my stomach was full and I couldn’t look at any more food, but I still went and joined the folks in watching Uncle Ahmed make some pizzas. If a client wants a pizza without sauce (they must be crazy, the sauce is the best part!) or with several types of cheese, he can do that. The preparation of the pizza - rolling out the dough, creating the correct shape and size, and layering the combination of toppings - takes more time than the cooking: the pizzas are crispy around the edges in two minutes flat. The pizza kitchen is conveniently placed at the front of the property, along the high street, where passers by can look through the window. If the smell of freshly baked sourdough bread or melting cheese manages to entice them in, they can watch the process through a huge pane of glass.

The Guardian gave At The Chapel 9/10 in a food critique in June this year: I can do one better and give them a full ten out of ten! Not just because I’m related to the owner!

Contact details:
At The Chapel, High Street, Bruton, Somerset, BA10 0AE
01749 814 070


Glendon Mellow said...

Yer makin' me hungry.

If I ever make it to visit the U.K., I fully expect to have lunch with you there.

James Allen said...

We were lucky enough to have supper there without booking last week while spending a few days in the area. The food was exquisite and very reasonably priced, and your uncle was kind enough to chat about wood burning pizza ovens (I am part way through building one in my garden!) and talked me through the way he makes and cooks pizza. He said he had made the oven when they were building the restaurant, but I didn't realise he made the furniture too! What a star!