a genuinely bright light among the morass of dreary, charmless proto-rural ‘gastro’ pubs that pepper the English countryside
Relationships. All very different. And by which I also mean how a relationship might vary with the gradual passing of time: waxing and waning as we evolve. Indeed, think of somebody you may have known for some time – an old friend perhaps – and how that particular relationship has made the journey alongside you; sometimes triumphant and world-beating, other times thorny or just outright soul sapping.
Whatever their type, relationships can be short-sweet-ta-very-much-see-you-around or they can be enduring. You might unexpectedly stumble upon the lust of your life and instantly embark upon an all-consuming affair with much passion and fireworks, or you could be one of those pitiful souls who, ignorant of any better way, falters from one futile association to the next, doomed to make the same mistakes ad infinitum. Your relationships may be warm, secure, comfortable, or they might just combust spectacularly at any second. It might even be an entirely different sort of connection altogether. For example, it could be one of respect and reverence or of light-hearted fun. It could just as easily be one of cool detachment.
You are of course aware by now that what I am actually talking about is restaurants. Or at the very least the places we choose to dine out at, and our own relationships with these places in whatever form that happens to take.
Immediate first impressions might lead you to decide “no way mate, I wouldn’t touch it with yours” and that would be the end of that. Things likely to bring on this kind of resolve usually include but are by no means limited to: those places that have pushy waiters/salesmen posted outside (rest assured that quality levels encountered inside will be exactly inversely proportionate to levels of affability/intimidation encountered outside); places where menus contain any kind of description whatsoever (a rich and rustic doberman drizzled in tangy farmhouse battery acid) or anyplace where waiting staff are obliged to explain what the ‘concept’ is (the concept is we choose, we eat, we pay). Oh, and Garfunkels. And Jamie’s Italian. I always maintain that anybody who chooses to eat in these places of their own volition deserves everything they get.
My own relationship with the Sir Charles Napier has always been a happy and good-natured one. Initially, it was lust at first sight. Although nowadays the ‘Napier’ is like an old friend, one that has (thus far) remained loyal, cheers you up when needed and whose company you always seek for a decent evening out. Maybe not always the most exhilarating of friends but one that never takes themselves too seriously either and rarely lets you down. And that right there is probably the finest attribute in any association you might make, be it platonic, epicurean, or with barnyard animals if that’s what it takes. That and a somewhat off-beat sense of humour.
Situated in the charmingly bucolic-sounding Spriggs Alley, The Sir Charles Napier is hidden away in deepest, leafiest Oxfordshire high up in The Chilterns. Proprietor Julie Griffiths has run the place now for well over 30 years. During this time it has doggedly built up a well-justified reputation for culinary brilliance; a genuinely bright light among the morass of dreary, charmless proto-rural ‘gastro’ pubs that pepper the English countryside. From reinvigorating pub food through the early to mid 90’s during the gastropub boom years to earning a Michelin star in 2011, the Napier remains a destination venue. Only do not make the mistake of calling it a pub (it is a restaurant, clearly). You might very well find yourself on the business end of Julie’s rather sharp tongue which itself has a reputation of its own to maintain. Consider yourself warned…
You arrive in the beamed bar area which itself is more snug and welcoming than many pubs. Deep, comfy sofas – and in the winter months the warm, smoky haze of a log fire – welcome guests. Reclining here is a pleasure and something I could happily do all evening long, perhaps nursing an Islay Malt to the sound and smell of softly crackling embers.
The dining room is in the rear of the building. Ceilings are low with tables arranged in an informal hotch-potch. A sense of eccentricity prevails. Furniture is mismatched while a range of equally eccentric sculptures can be found either as table centre pieces or lurking in corners. Be sure to keep an eye out. It is definitely a dining room with a sense of humour.
Foie gras, corn bread and cherry jelly got everything off to a rip-roaring start. The fried lobe of foie was plump and devilishly, shamefully unctuous as oozy bubbles of cherry provided an inspired counterpoint.
Rose veal, polenta, morels and baby summer aparagus was certainly evidence of more polished, refined cooking. It was wonderful: everything, from the veal, youthfully soft, sliced thin and rare through to the warmly savoury morels through to the earthy green-ness of the asparagus. Confit duck with five-spice, carrot and yuzu just worked. Elsewhere, a surprisingly bold squab pigeon with imam biyaldi and lentils came with an exceptional pithivier of its liver that was all bold, musky offal. A generous hunk of pearlescent turbot came with samphire, sea greens and a cockle risotto.
For dessert, an imaginative assortment of ice creams and sorbets: sticky toffee pudding ice cream contained gooey chunks of actual toffee pudding and was a riot, while a Limoncello sorbet was so sweet – too sweet in fact – it pulled your gums back over your teeth. It was rather like overdosing on blue Smarties but with an additional kick of booze. But best of all was a perfectly baked, languorously melting blackberry and apple soufflé.
Service is unobtrusive and well-drilled and matches the food for quality. There is also a dedicated and well-informed sommelier to match a good, across-the-board wine list. Julie Griffiths clearly runs a tight ship.
Absolutely bagfuls of character and such good fun. But always steady. More than steady. This is one relationship that is certain to endure. Top notch, first rate food and the best restaurant for miles around. Oh, and if the fact that the Sir Charles Napier is Raymond Blanc’s favourite local restaurant doesn’t inspire you to pay a visit then nothing will.
Opinion: 9 / 10.
Sir Charles Napier
Oxon OX39 4BX
Tel: 01494 483011
Fax: 01494 485311