Staring at a hippo’s buttocks: it must be love
Rating - 9/10, Matthew Norman
For readers who have only come to the Beatles in the few days since their oeuvre finally appeared on iTunes, we begin with some helpful textual analysis. When Ringo, in With a Little Help from My Friends, confirms his belief in love at first sight, adding that he’s certain that it happens all the time, he was not referring to restaurants.
It happens exceedingly rarely when eating out, but with the Sir Charles Napier it was love at first sight, smell, sound and general feel. On entering the woodily beamed bar of this red-brick inn one freezing lunchtime a couple of years ago, we were so smitten by the scent of wood smoke, the warmth from two log fires, the sedate classical jazz and the reassuring sense that everything here was absolutely right, that my friend had declared “I love this place already” before he’d parked himself on a squishy sofa.
The ensuing meal was so impeccable, and so bizarrely cheap, that I included the restaurant among five personal favourites in an introductory piece back in June. Aware that some of you may have been inspired to travel to a part of rural Oxfordshire remote enough to demand a top-of-the-range satnav device, terror presaged this overdue return. Restaurants can go off, after all, and often do.
Phew, phew and yea thrice phew. This one remains a transcendent delight, from owner Julie Griffiths’s jolly welcome at the start to the startlingly modest bill at the end. That bill will be even smaller in the New Year (see below), but £15.50 for two courses of this quality is still a suitably respectful nod to the frugality of the Victorian general after whom it is named. In 1843, Sir Charles famously informed London that he had captured the then Indian province of Sindh with the one word telegram “Peccavi” (the Latin for “I have sinned”).
This time around, the verbal love-bombing began once we were seated in a dining room, buzzing with the sound of a venerable clientele relishing its grub, that succeeds in mingling the solid and cosy (beige carpet, distressed off-white walls, plain old wooden furniture) with the surreal (lone arms poking out from the wall, Monty Python opening credits-style, either side of a large mirror).
Two of us went for that set lunch and the other à la carte (not cheap), and until the puddings we gushed about everything. Pork rillettes with toasted ciabatta were “smooth and powerfully meaty without overpowering”. A breadcrumb-coated duck egg with black and white puddings and a French bean salad drew from my wife a rousing: “Quite rich, with a hint of truffle oil, but gentle and comforting. Beautiful.” My pumpkin velouté was a velvety, autumnal triumph, studded with pumpkin seeds and chunks of goat’s cheese to offset the cloying sweetness of the pumpkin perfectly.
“I love this place,” said this friend as the plates were cleared, echoing the previous one, “it makes me feel cosseted.” “I love it too,” chipped in the missus, “although I can’t be doing with that ” – she indicated the bronze hippopotamus on our table – “I didn’t come down the M40 to stare at a hippo’s buttocks. If I want that sort of aesthetic treat, I can stay at home and look at you.” Cornish cod with crushed potato improved her mood. “The fish is great,” she said, “but I love it mostly for the wonderful grainy mustard sauce and this cabbage, which has been lavishly tossed in butter.”
Love, love, love, as some old band had it… I loved my breast of pheasant on a bed of cavolo nero. It was fabulously tender and juicy, and came with a dainty little jug of amazingly good, clear gravy.
The winner, however, was our friend’s (à la carte) loin of local venison, reared on a nearby estate owned by the cricket-loving Getty family… two chunky discs of mauvy-pink flesh of incredible savour and flavour. “Stunning,” she cooed. “I like the delicate sauerkraut and the cranberries, too, but it’s the figs that raise it above the merely delicious towards the heavenly.” This is cooking of the highest quality by a technically outstanding young chef, Chris Godfrey, with a rare talent for balancing his dishes.
Of the puds, one was bland. “Can’t taste any sherry at all,” said my wife of her trifle, “so I may have to nick a bottle of Oloroso from the bar.” Her finishing school was closed down, as I may have mentioned in her defence before, after an Interpol raid. But my sticky toffee brioche with caramelised banana and Jersey ice cream was magnificent.
“Did I mention that I love this place?” asked our friend over coffee. “Well, what I want to do now is sit by the fire with a large brandy, have a long snooze and never leave. Do you think Sammy,” she mused of her four-year-old, “would be able to make his own way home from nursery?”
We suspected that social services might take a dim view and reluctantly departed in different directions, promising to return in the New Year when, from mid-January to the end of February, that set lunch is further reduced. The owner hasn’t decided yet between £11 and £12. Either way, the parsimonious Sir Charles will be beaming in a westerly direction from his plinth in Trafalgar Square.
The Guardian - The Observer Food Monthly
Jay Rayner chose us as one of the best places to eat this summer.Though the long-term proprietor, Julie Griffiths, hates the term, this pub high in the Chiltern hills, lays claim to being the original gastropub. From relatively modest beginnings, it has become a much-loved treasure, renowned for smart modern brasserie food – scallops with crispy pork belly, turbot with samphire and Jersey royals – and a lovely setting. Best of all are the gardens, scattered with fine rounded sculptures by Julie's partner Michael Cooper, which make a terrific backdrop for a summer's lunch. It has a great wine list, too.
The showdowns on Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, on Channel 4, have proved conclusively that there is no immutable restaurant law by which family-run equals good. But Ramsay will not be needed to gee-up The Sir Charles Napier Inn in Oxfordshire as long as Julie Griffiths and her family are in charge of what was described by one critic as "the godfather of the gastro-pub revolution”.
A Tuesday lunchtime in April is as good a time as any to be glad that you live up the M40 and can thus pause at the Napier for refreshment. The unflappable Julie Griffiths met us, and the rest of the family joint did their bit: one of her two daughters was our waitress, supplemented by local girls, and her husband, Michael, is responsible for the sculptures that are scattered about the place.
Griffiths was informal and charming, efficient without being in-your-face, and buttressed on the alcohol side of things was a knowledgeable French sommelier. We had a drink in the cosy bar, which has two log fires, before heading for the two small dining rooms, with their appealing mish-mash of furniture. If the weather ever improves, we could have been shown to a table in the ridiculously pretty garden.
The rest of us can be grateful that it took us only ten minutes to get there from the motorway, and that here in deepest Oxfordshire there is even a positive side to the international global recession: our set lunch was only £14.50 a head for two courses, and the set dinner is only £16.50. The menu changes regularly, but ham hock terrine, fishcakes, navarin of lamb and fennel risotto did us proud.
If we had gone à la carte, the prices would have been closer to London rates for, say, roasted diver scallop, tortellini, celeriac purée or poached halibut, crab mousseline, cockles and wasabi foam; but then it’s practically in London anyway. The chefs trained under Rowley Leigh and Gordon Ramsay. Enough said.
If food with a pedigree such as that, served courteously and efficiently, isn’t enough to lure you from your fireside, the rest of the country’s hostelries may as well give up.
For the first time a 10/10 Maximum Score from Matthew Norman
The Guardian Weekend
In an age when imperial warriors were better educated, if not better intentioned, than they are today, a Victorian warrior made a pun at which all future generations of Latin pupils were obliged to affect mild amusement. On capturing the Indian (now Pakistani) province of Sindh in 1843, Sir Charles Napier reported his triumph back to London with the single word "Peccavi", meaning "I have sinned".
OK, so no one will be rushing off to Boots for a ribcage repair kit, but that's a shade cuter than "mission accomplished". (By the way, should any US special forces on the verge of capturing Ossie BL be reading this, "oneravim" is the Latin for "I have been laden".) And it's not Napier's sole contribution to British culture, because the old boy has also given his name to a restaurant that, as the mark over to the right indicates, did not sin in the minutest detail during a lunch of such superlative quality, and at such dementedly small cost, that credulity was stretched until it squealed for mercy.
To find so handsome a redbrick inn in so picturesque a setting, atop a valley in bucolic Oxfordshire, is something in itself, and I beg you not to try without a decent satnav. But, once located, it is a total delight, not least for the statue of the naked woman in the gardens and the scent of burning wood that assails the nostrils when you walk in the door. "My God, I love this place already," my friend said as we sat with halves of bitter and Guinness by a log fire in a squishy, woody, comfy bar. "But look, there's a cockup with this set menu." I glanced at my copy of the cheapo (there's an à la carte, too, at West End prices), and took the point: two courses for £11.50 seemed a typo, until the friendly owner of this family-run joint, Julie Griffiths, explained it was a promotion for January and February, the price then resorting to a scandalous £14.50.
Before I go on, the ritual apology: I appreciate that relentless gushing of this kind is tiresome when what we most yearn for in any review is a droll kicking, but when there's nothing to kick, or even to clip playfully around the ear, what's a chap to do? The service was as warm and charming as the light, pretty dining room with its distressed, off-white walls, ancient mirrors, fresh flowers and wildlife statuettes, some understatedly eccentric touches (a pair of torch-bearing arms poking through the wall) and furniture that paid gentle homage to the adventures of the eponymous colonialist. "These chairs, they're from Rajasthan?" I asked Julie. "No," she said, "High Wycombe."
As for the food, cooked by a pair of chefs who learned their trade under Rowley Leigh and Gordon Ramsay, oh my word. The one complaint about a luscious, intense watercress soup was that there wasn't more of it, while my friend greeted lamb shoulder with griddled bread and imam biyaldi - a Turkish concoction of garlicky, oniony aubergine fried in olive oil (it translates to "the imam fainted", apparently when overwhelmed with joy at the taste) - with, "Och, God, this is incredible. Beautiful. Och. Fantastic. Och." And so on, until I threatened to slap him if the Meg Ryan act didn't cease.
I had previously wished I was having what he'd ordered for both courses, his sumptuous whole plaice with lemon and caper butter being equally magnificent and coming with a great medley of vegetables. Yet, if anything, my choice had the edge. I've always liked haggis, but had not the faintest idea that ovine innards boiled in a sheep's stomach could taste as wondrous as this fabulously rich, savoury, peppery concoction, served with spectacular horseradish mash and braised celeriac, this brilliantly matched ensemble resting on delectable gravy. It was my friend's turn to threaten violence when I raised the prospect of licking my plate clean.
So generous were the portions, too, that we were stuffed by the time the plates were cleared, but feeling sheepish at having ordered no wine, we shared an unspeakably creamy peanut butter parfait with black cherry sorbet and peanut brittle that may just qualify as the finest pud I've ever tasted.
Then again, and all in all, this was not merely the best value meal either of us have had, but among the best regardless of cost. Just like the Latin tense deployed by the conqueror of Sindh, it was perfect. Or, put another way, impeccable.
The Good Food Guide
Julie Griffiths has been running the Napier with great good humour for more than four decades and has won countless friends along the way: “We have been going there for 22 years and have never had a less than excellent meal”, noted one devoted couple. At its best (and that generally means hot summer days) the place is irresistibly seductive with its gorgeous gardens, foliage-entwined terrace and surreal sculptures: don’t be put off by the shiny inanimate gorillas and other beasts that populate the place.
In the kitchen, seasonal ingredients are treated with due respect, whether it is game, foraged fungi or wild garlic from the nearby Chiltern woods. Winter might see roast partridge with confit carrots,sardalaise potatoes and morel veloute, while summer brings wild turbot with garlic and lemon thyme or lamb cutlets with confit shoulder, crushed peas and paloise sauce. Regulars are quick to praise the cheeseboard and also the choice of puddings – perhaps gooseberry fool with citrus Madeleine or rhubarb and vanilla crumble tart.
The global wine list is a knowledgeable, impeccably chosen slate with plenty of half bottles and adventurous house recommendations.
AA Restaurant Guide
Perhaps the nicest way to arrive at this popular country pub in the Chiltern Hills is on foot from Chinnor village, a two-mile climb through the surrounding beechwoods which provide its chef with wild garlic in the spring and mushrooms in the autumn. When its cold you’ll be greeted with huge log fires and comfy sofas, while sunny days bring an exodus to a wisteria-shaded terrace outside. Unusual sculptures dotted around the bar and dining room provide a talking point for visitors. Here, you’ll be treated to some seriously accomplished cooking.
The kitchen delivers a menu underpinned by classical French cuisine and shows a dedication both to quality local produce and clean, accurate flavours. Try a fricassee of white asparagus, crayfish and morels to start followed by open lasagne of john dory with lobster and lemon grass sauce.
Top 10 Stylish Haunts - This is an old-fashioned inn that just happens to serve some of the best food in the county, as well as having the best grounds. The perfect halfway house between urban-floorboard gastropub and twee country ale house.
Tatler Restaurant Guide
Run by the charming Julie Griffiths
The Godfather of the gastro-pub revolution.
The Guardian - Matthew Fort
Lost in the trackless wastes of Oxfordshire, but well worth the search.
It’s possible some people might prefer the kitchen view to facing the naked lady whose private parts are right at eye level.
Napier was the man who, after relieving the siege of Sind, sent Queen Victoria a telegram reading simply ‘peccavi’ or I have sinned.
The Sunday Telegraph
The Sir Charles Napier has oodles of understated charisma.