High on my list of Cardiff restaurants to visit and review has been the recently opened Chapel 1877 – the new incarnation for the former Pembroke Terrace Chapel on Churchill Way. The old chapel building has been lovingly converted into a restaurant and bar, with the interior themed around the original gothic style of the chapel, and comprises three floors: private dining and functions, the ‘gastro bar’ and the a la carte restaurant.
We booked a table in the a la carte restaurant on a Saturday night, and were looking forward to a new dining experience for Cardiff! First impressions were good: the exterior of the building looks smart and special, and we were welcomed at the door, then welcomed again as we went inside by someone who directed us to the restaurant entrance, where we were welcomed again(!) by the restaurant host, who took us up the stairs and showed us to our table – one of several booths overlooking the main dining area. I was glad that they seem to have paid attention to ensuring that diners are not left having to fight their own way through a sea of bodies at the bar in order to reach the restaurant.
The restaurant is an impressive space: an open gallery overlooking the bar, with tables on all four sides of the balcony, plus an open kitchen, with the gothic architecture a feature throughout. I really liked the dining area, and although our booth table was lovely (despite it resulting in my photos being even worse than normal!), I’d be keen to try one of the tables overlooking the bar area too, to get the full experience. A note at this point: I generally don’t like ‘bar-restaurant’ arrangements on a Friday or Saturday night, unless there’s a very clear demarcation between the two, in terms of space and sound. In Chapel, the space was certainly separate – so, no danger of drinkers encroaching into your dining elbow room, or even perching on the end of your table while you’re trying to eat (this has happened to me before!) but I was concerned that there could be a lot of noise from the bar below. Happily, this wasn’t the case – perhaps because our booth shielded us slightly, but even without the booth setting, neither the music or the ‘people noise’ was too intrusive on our visit.
The menu was very promising: nicely presented and temptingly described, with lots of appealing dishes. I started with a firm favourite: chicken liver and foie gras parfait, which was served with ‘Chapel chutney’ and toasted brioche. The parfait was flavoursome and deliciously smooth, and served at room temperature to really bring out the flavour. The sweet, light brioche was the perfect complement. The Chapel chutney had an overwhelmingly Indian flavour to it, which was highly unusual with this kind of dish, but certainly not unpleasant, and certainly worked for me!
Mr W’s starter was potted rabbit with piccalilli and Tortoise bakery sourdough toast soldiers. He loved the rabbit; I liked the flavour but found the texture a bit too liquid for my liking. The piccalilli provided a nice contrast in flavour and texture, but the sourdough toast was way too hard and crunchy, and reminded us of babies’ rusks.
My main course was the overall star of the show – baked Wester Ross salmon fillet with crab rarebit, creamed leeks and polenta nuggets. I often shy away from salmon in restaurants, on the basis that I cook it myself frequently at home and it’s always fairly standard, but I thought the accompaniments to this salmon dish sounded too good to overlook – and thankfully, I was right! The salmon itself was moist and delicious – fairly rare in the middle, but hot throughout (I don’t like rare fish if it’s cold in the middle!) and the crab rarebit topping was delicious – a creamy mix of delicate crab with just a hint of sharp cheddar. The polenta chips were crisp on the outside and pleasantly gooey in the middle and the creamed leeks (one of my favourite vegetable dishes) were tasty and well seasoned. I’d definitely eat this again!
Mr W went for the unusual choice of veal Milanese, which was described as being served with walnut pesto and lemon. In reality, there was only a drizzle of walnut pesto, with a spaghetti in tomato sauce as the main accompaniment. We weren’t sure about it when it arrived, but as the meal went on, Mr W said it grew on him and he ended up enjoying it! We also shared a portion of ‘Chapel chips’ – which, I have to admit, looked fairly average when they arrived, but over-delivered on taste and texture, with a crispy exterior and fluffy centre.
To finish, we shared a dark chocolate chilli fondant, served with stem ginger ice cream. Unfortunately, the first one that arrived was more like a chocolate sponge, with only a hint of moistness in the centre – but, as soon as we made our server aware, it was whisked away without quibble, and a pleasingly gooey centred replacement brought to our table within a matter of minutes. In the end, it was an excellent chocolate fondant, with the hint of chilli giving it an extra dimension, set off nicely by the stem ginger ice cream.
The speed and ease with which our dissatisfaction with the fondant was rectified was just one example of what was extremely good service throughout the evening – in the face of what I think were challenging circumstances for the staff. They seemed exceptionally busy, and when we were ready to order our food at the start of the evening, we were told that they had been asked by the kitchen not to put in any more orders for ten minutes, so they couldn’t take our order yet. I did find this a bit strange – I’d have preferred to have had my order taken and just held back for ten minutes, so long as I was made aware of the delay – and there was then a misunderstanding when another member of staff did come and take our order, but on the whole, on a relaxed Saturday evening out, this really wasn’t a major issue for us, and even if nothing had been said, I don’t think we’d have really noticed an excessive delay. Oddly, even though we didn’t complain, the staff seemed to think that it was a much bigger problem than it was, and, even before the situation with the pudding, some complementary wine arrived on our table, accompanied by profuse apologies! Similarly, having to send back the pudding was not a major issue for us – the important thing was that it was done without argument and the end result was excellent – but the staff insisted on taking it off our bill.
I’m a firm believer that from time to time in any customer-facing business, things will always go wrong – or at least not quite according to plan, and unless there’s been an obvious oversight or lack of care, I never have an issue with this. What I often do have an issue with, however, is how it’s dealt with when things inevitably go wrong – lack of apology or arguing over things not being right are a definite no-no in my book. In the case of Chapel, the service exceeded my expectations in this regard – with the staff actually apologising for things that we hadn’t even found to be a problem! And, before anyone jumps to any conclusions, I’ll also make it clear that we were visiting as paying guests, booked under Mr W’s name, and with no indication or prior warning that I would be reviewing the evening, so the fantastic service can’t be explained by that either!
I’ll definitely be going back to Chapel. Central Cardiff is in desperate need of more places like this that feel ‘special’ on a Saturday night. I still miss The Print Room, my favourite restaurant in my old hometown of Bournemouth, and Chapel certainly has similarities. The food wasn’t perfect, but was good overall and, in a few places, excellent, and I can certainly see it going from strength to strength as they really find their feet.
Food: **** Service: **** Ambience: ****
Chapel 1877, Churchill Way, Cardiff