If you pulled up to the chapel Grill in Naples from the Seventh Avenue side, with its large outdoor dining areas and the free valet parking, you’d not mistake it for anything but an attractive, upscale restaurant. Approaching from Eighth Street South, you might look twice. The bell tower and white clapboard exterior of the Chapel Grill still very much resemble the original structure, the First Baptist Church erected in 1946. But the interior has been revamped by owner/founder Stephen Fleischer into an elegant and inviting temple to fine dining, with a warm color palette and dramatic light fixtures that brought in natural elements.
The restaurant was nearly empty when Kevin and I arrived for our 6 p.m. reservation. But we had our two-year-old daughter, Lilly, with us, which may be why we were seated in a less-than-prime location near the open kitchen, adjacent to the patio. Our server, Amanda, brought 2011 Angeline pinot noir ($8) for Kevin and me, and hot pretzel bread rolls with charming little butter rosettes. We ordered the duck spring rolls ($11.80) right away while perusing the rest of the menu. The Chapel Grill offers a junior Prix Fixe menu, and Lilly chose chocolate milk, chicken fingers and Chapel log fries ($8).
I decided on one of the evening’s specials, the surf and turf, with a six-ounce lobster tail and four-ounce filet ($37.60). Kevin selected the center cut pork chop ($26.40). I added a Chapel salad ($8.40) to the lineup. The spring rolls arrived, and they were impressive. Crisp and light, the duck was flavorful and the vegetables were still crunchy. They came with a small mango and cilantro salad that nicely complemented the tang of the dipping sauce.
As the dining rooms started filling with peak-season dinner crowds, the noise level became a little less than reverential. Over the usual hum of happy diners and bustling staff, we could hear an electronic droning and bleeping. The enjoyment of my Chapel salad, dressed in a mild and slightly sweet vinaigrette that allowed the individual flavors of the fresh mixed greens to shine through, was kept at bay by my attempts to figure out where that noise was coming from. Finally I had it—my direct view into the kitchen revealed that the noise came from the meal ticket machine crankily whining out the evenings’ orders. It went on and on—and on. I was relieved when our entrees arrived and there was something else on which to focus.
Kevin’s thick, juicy chop was capped with a bed of spinach and nestled atop a generous heap of garlic mashed potatoes. Steamed whole carrots and a pair of sauces accompanied the pork chop: a mild white sauce and a delicious smoked-tomato barbecue sauce. The surf and turf was good, too, also accompanied by garlic mashed potatoes, whole carrots and asparagus spears. The potatoes and meat were drizzled with a rich, savory port wine reduction. The lobster tail was fantastic, made more so by the truffle butter sauce it was drenched in.
I’d known before coming to Chapel Grill that Executive Chef Jorge Nolasco takes great care with his sauces and stocks, reducing and refining for days. A saucier knows that bones and marrow will not yield their deepest secrets unless given time and patience. As Kevin, Lilly and I savored the caramel cheesecake ($6.50) for dessert and I sipped a really fine cappuccino ($5.95), it struck me that the owner and chef shared a similar aesthetic. Like the chef who saves the bones and vegetable parings from one dish to flavor the stock for others, Fleischer had preserved the elegant bones of the church to create his fine-looking restaurant. He had decided not to tear the church down and start over with all new materials, thereby yielding a much more historied and lovely place to dine.
The Chapel Grill, 811 Seventh Ave. S., Naples; (239) 206-4310, thechapelgrill.com. Open 5 p.m. to close daily. Lunch at 12 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. The Chapel Tavern open 4 p.m. to close daily. Happy hour daily, 4-6 p.m. Wheelchair accessible. Free valet parking. Reservations recommended.