I am a fussy cow. I know that. Which makes it difficult for me to find somewhere to eat out in the sticks that doesn’t bore me, isn’t overpriced and isn’t mediocre. I am spoilt by London, truth be told.
There are a number of fairly well-regarded restaurants disguised as pubs in the vicinity (South Oxfordshire , Jcn 6 of the M 40 to be exact) and one of these is The Sir Charles Napier, in Chinnor. As it is only 10 minutes drive for me, I have been there on a number of occasions.
This is a triumph of hope over experience and I am hoping that one day I will have the sort of meal which will help me to understand how Matthew Norman, in the Telegraph, could have rated this 10 out of 10. Twice.
Maybe it’s the setting. The location is indeed wonderful. Perched on top of the Bledlow Ridge, there is a very pretty garden overlooking the Chilterns and when the weather is up to it, you can sit outside and have a leisurely lunch/dinner whilst the red kites cavort in front of you and you stare at the slightly disturbing sculptures dotted around the gardens. The prettiness of the setting explains a lot, but not everything and I have really questioned my own judgement here, because all I can see are positive reviews and that does not chime with my own experience. And really, I want it to be good, because so few of the restaurants in this area are actually worth getting in the car for.
The formula is to seat you in the bar at the front of the restaurant. Sometimes this means (horror) that you have to make conversation with other people whilst you are waiting. When I am with C, that generally doesn’t happen as he has a very effective thousand yard stare, designed to avoid the possibility of middle-class small talk. C is Canadian, which explains everything.
The decoration is shabby chic and as well as the garden, the restaurant is dotted around with sculptures, created, I believe, by the husband of the proprietor, I believe. To me, it’s more shabby than chic and looks tired and in need of a facelift. I could also do without the “witty touches” such as the plaster hands holding back the curtains and the sculpture of the woman in the corner with the Afro wig made of plastic greenery. I don’t like humorous furniture as a rule. And they really should sort out the ladies loo.
Every time I have been here, I have been served the same snacks – marinated olives and two different types of home-baked savoury biscuit. For a restaurant with a Michelin star, you might think that they could vary it occasionally, but no. And you might also think that having been there, oooh, say about eight times now, they might remember that I always order a kir and you know, every now and again, they might actually give me one on the house.
And the prices! There is a set dinner of two courses for £17.95. This isn’t available at the weekend or on Friday nights . As this is not a special “destination” place for me, I am generally keen to eat off the set menu. This gives you a choice of three starters and three main courses. This time, I didn’t want any of them.
I decided to order from the main menu. And given that I had not come out for an expensive meal, I opted for two starters because I didn’t want to pay £28.50 for a piece of fish (nearer £32 after the obligatory service is added ) and also, having a smaller meal will do me no harm once in a while.
To start, therefore, I chose the twice-baked soufflé, with haddock and cheddar, which I believe is one of their signature dishes. This was to be followed by a tomato risotto. These two, before service, cost what I regard to be a whopping £22, before the mandatory 12.5% service, so in reality around £25. Just too too much. Sorry to bang on about the money, but you know what it’s like. Once you start to see how expensive it is, you can’t stop and it gets in the way of your enjoyment.
The soufflé was competent and light. It came with a cream sauce with flakes of smoked haddock in it. It is what I would describe as superior comfort food. The tomato risotto was a simple affair, just a plain risotto, topped with slices of tomato. It wasn’t what I was expecting. I could taste no tomato in the risotto itself and it was fairly bland . It was cooked properly however, which is not always a given.
For the a la carte main courses, expect to pay between £19.50, for the vegetarian main course and a whopping £42.50 for lobster. The average price for a main course is around £26.
I fancied cheese but, again, the price tag on the menu put me off . “From 10.50.” Really? How can they justify that? Are they having it biked from La Fromagerie on a daily basis? Again, just too much.
It’s not that there is anything wrong with the food – there isn’t. The problem is it’s not a lot better than I could cook at home and whilst I’m a competent cook, I’m not trained and if I’m expected to pay these prices, I expect to see some panache, some real flair, some generosity with the ingredients. I would be happy with the food here if it was 25% less expensive. I am not unrealistic. I eat out a lot. I know what it costs. I don’t understand where they get the pricing. The property running costs cannot be that great and staff costs will no doubt be less than London, but these are Mayfair prices without Mayfair panache. So really, the pricing has got in the way of my enjoyment of this restaurant. If you are lucky enough to get a set menu that you like, then the prices are acceptable. If not, then they are not.
This is indeed a pleasant place to sit and have a leisurely lunch in the South Oxfordshire countryside and it’s only 40 minutes from the London end of the M40 and a very pleasant way to while away a Sunday afternoon. But it isn’t, in my view, something to make a special occasion of and it certainly isn’t good value.