As fans of top-ranked reader-out-loud Huw Edwards will be aware, our Methodist chapels are under mortal threat. Huw has written a book about his crusade to save chapels in his native Llanelli – it’s already on my Christmas wishlist – yet had Huw joined us for lunch at what was once a house of worship in Somerset, he may well have had second thoughts. For the imaginatively named At The Chapel (a former Congregational chapel) is such a shining star that, on dining here, even the late Lord Soper would surely have broken the non-habit of a lifetime and ordered something alcoholic with which to toast it.
The first thing that hits you about the place is the smell. There is nothing so appetite-stimulating as the scent of freshly baked bread, which is why supermarkets use baking aroma aerosols. These don’t always work – the defunct Europa chain used to deploy one that smelled like bread, sure, albeit a loaf used as a makeshift merkin by a tramp during a heatwave – but the real thing never fails, and the whiff drifting from the huge wood-fired oven in the bakery at the front worked its magic even on my wife. “I love this place already,” she said as we sat down. “It looks great and it feels exactly right.” Although I’d have the courage to say if this was wrong (she hasn’t read a word of mine since 1993, and that was the contents of a birthday card), she was spot on. The large, uncluttered, high-ceilinged room is a beauty – gleaming white walls, good prints, loads of natural light, scuffed floorboards, open-plan kitchen at one end, bar at the other, refectory tables in the middle. Unusually for such determined misanthropes, we even liked the look of the clientele, a cocktail of elderly couples, smart young pros and boho groups with loads of small children. The wine list, meanwhile, is exceptional in range and pricing. It was put together by an erstwhile colleague, Matthew Hooberman, who left newspapers to help launch Soho House and now runs the vintner side here. He was in the day we went, and I sympathised with him for abandoning such a vibrant growth industry at the wrong time. He said he’s coping as best he can.
While getting stuck into a delicious 2005 Faugères, I offered a silent prayer for some kitchen calamity to reduce the chances of nauseating you with a virtual press release. But, alas, the food was outstanding, every last morsel of it. Our friends, who live a few miles away, had raved about this place, and no wonder. Smooth chicken liver pâté came in its own little Kilner jar with superlative sourdough toast and a fine homemade fig chutney. A gargantuan portion of confit duck leg was crispy-skinned and juicy, and came with the creamiest foie gras terrine. Best of all was a prettily presented grilled mackerel Caesar salad – a clever and novel idea perfectly executed.
We were on to a second bottle of the wine when our friends began reminiscing about their return to a restaurant in that same south-western corner of France after a gap of several decades to be greeted warmly by the owner. The tale caused the male half of the couple to well up. Never one to be outdone on the lachrymal front, I then imagined the Marseilles scene from Casablanca (my answer to the actorly onion), and began weeping myself. If we cut an eccentric sight – and it’s long odds-on we did – the charming waitress served the main courses as if we were normal. Chargrilled rib-eye steaks with onion rings and fries were excellent, as was a delicate cep risotto with a Parmesan crisp. A growing boy of our acquaintance wasn’t wild about his pizza, based on organic mozzarella and fancy San Marzano tomatoes, but I thought it terrific – the owner told us she’d sent the chefs to pizza school in Venice – and a request for extra chillies was answered with a bowl of freshly chopped bird’s eyes. Pear and rhubarb crumble was a delight, in a light, nutmeggy, cinnamony kinda way.
We left grinning like lunatics, because, without wishing to distress Huw, this was as close to a religious experience as this rampant atheist is ever likely to have in a house of the Lord. A provincial restaurant taking pride in every aspect of its work, unshowily passionate about pleasuring the punters and avoiding any hint of pretension. Who knows, maybe there is a benign deity.
• This article was amended on 9 June 2009, to make clear that the restaurant is located in a former Congregational chapel, not a Methodist one.