Restaurant review: The unconventional Convent
PUBLISHED: 16:00 23 October 2014 | UPDATED: 12:42 04 December 2014
Katie Jarvis thinks there are some restaurant sins to be confessed, but redemption might not be too far away for this promising venue
Listen… In fact, I’m begging you. Please read right to the end of this piece.
The thing is that this review of The Convent in Woodchester starts with some sins but, once forgiven, there is a hint of paradise. There are also awkward habits that need to go; but, on the plus side, the bread and the wine are pretty good.
Look – I’m not being facetious or disrespectful here. It feels both slightly incongruous – but also thrilling – that a former home to the abstemious Franciscan order of Poor Clares should now house a private members’ club/music/literature-venue/restaurant – a centre of hedonism and epicureanism. I can’t help but contrast that with the nuns’ austere lifestyle, walking chilly, echoing stone corridors lit by shadow-casting (I’m guessing here) candles. And wouldn’t a belief in the afterlife make you more scared of its ghostly corners? Especially if you were one of the five nuns eventually left in this meandering building that now accommodates hundreds without batting an eyelid? Well, there was certainly a fear of men. Rumour has it that the postman had to deposit letters with the discretion of a jewel thief. And my dad once pulled in to the convent to let another car pass, only to be chased away by an irate nun. Happy days.
Anyway. The convent’s sheer size is obvious as we make our way from the (relatively small) car park to the entrance. We’re led to the door by divinely-inspired guesswork (it’s certainly not obvious which way to go); a guesswork also employed by staff. I press the door intercom, to which a vague and disembodied voice replies, “Yes?” “I’ve got a booking for the restaurant?” I query. “Oh!” says the voice, with an air of mild surprise. “What do I press to let them in?” Clearly a Novice.
“Would you like a drink before dinner?” asks the nice girl on reception, taking us down to the amazing bar area, which houses a niche where a more saintly figure once stood. “Yes, please!” we say. “Well,” she replies, incredulous, “you’ll have to be quick, then, because your table’s ready and we serve in 15-minute slots.”
So we turn tail and head straight to the restaurant (open Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, currently), which turns out to be a startlingly unnecessary precaution, owing to the fact that there’s a 45-minute wait for our starters. As we wait, we’re entertained by the regular passing of delicious-looking bar snacks, heading for the band (Sarah Jane Morris and the African Project), who are playing in a ticketed event this evening.
Now. The only route from the kitchen to the rest of the Convent appears to be straight through the restaurant. Apart from the fact that, after 20 minutes or so, I’m having to stop Ian ravenously grabbing and eating a passing snack (and, after 40 minutes, ravenously grabbing and eating a waitress) the problem is this: the restaurant floor is exposed wood. On the plus side, somebody has clearly asked the sensible question: ‘What would be the noisiest footwear one could wear, while carrying bar snacks through a restaurant of diners?’ But then – and this is a mistake anyone could make – having identified that footwear, and asked the subsequent question: ‘Should we ban it or make it compulsory?’ They went – in my view – for the wrong option. And they were so nearly there!
At one point, they clearly threw in the suggestion that someone carrying food while oddly wearing Morris-dancer bells would create additional noise of an interestingly different nature. Again, they went the wrong way on this!
The truth is, it just doesn’t make for stress-free relaxation. “I’m pretty sure I left the gas on,” I say to Ian. But he’s too absorbed in sudden anxiety about his latest tax return to answer.
The food is good; that’s true. Not stunning, but good. (We’re promised the menu in advance by email but it never arrives.) They source as much as they can from their kitchen garden, which is great. Ian has Kentucky rabbit with sweetcorn salsa, chilli sauce and lime to begin; I, a beetroot tarte tatin with salad. Both are nice but, after such a long wait, take about 27 seconds to eat. Ian’s Wagyu sirloin of beef with truffle mash, carrots and greens is pretty good; again, my Cornish plaice and watercress puree is but a fleeting glimpse of the sea. We dessert on a very nice apple and blackberry pie and a hot chocolate fondant. But – what do you think about this? – the £35 set menu boasts four courses, the final one being petit fours and sweetmeats. Forgive my being an ingénue, but wouldn’t you think this includes a coffee? Nope. We’re charged an extra £2.50 apiece for an Americano.
So – therein some of the sins. But. BUT. Strangely, I like The Convent. I really like it. I like the oddness of it. I love the fact that they’ve taken a behemoth of a building on – which is hugely courageous. I like idea of music and literature events. I love the creepy quirkiness of the endless corridors. Our corner of the dining room smells alarmingly of damp – but why wouldn’t it? Kudos to the owners for tackling something that could have been lost, ere else. And I think it’s going to be good. One day soon. Very good.
I have to mention the downsides – I wouldn’t be doing my job otherwise. But I’m glad I went. In a nutshell, there are some things you’ve just got to experience at least once. Obviously, death is one of them. But I’m trying to lift the mood a bit here.
Ambience: 8 (6 for comfort, 10 for originality)
Service: 6 (lovely waitress; too long a wait)
Value for money: 6
The Convent, Convent Lane, South Woodchester GL5 5HS, 0330 2232 707; www.theconvent.net
Our restaurant reviews are completely independent. Katie arrives unannounced and pays for her meal.
This article by Katie Jarvis is from the November 2014 issue of Cotswold Life.
For more from Katie, follow her on Twitter: @katiejarvis