Editor's note: the head chef has changed since my visit and is now Ben Howarth.
The Sir Charles Napier is a pub in Chinnor, a village south east of Oxford, reached via a series of narrow country roads. Sir Charles Napier was a restless and controversial British general who in 1843 conquered Sindh province against considerable military odds, something well beyond the scope of his mission. He is apocryphally supposed to have dispatched the pun “forgive me for I have Sindh” to explain himself after this campaign.
The pub itself is an isolated building so far off the beaten track that even our Satnav system scratched its silicon head and reckoned it was “off road”. The head chef is Chris Godfrey, who came to the restaurant in 2005 as a chef de partie and worked his way up to sous-chef under three different head chefs. After a spell in Australia and Asia and a stint at The Square he became head chef at the Kinghan Plough in The Cotswolds for 18 months before returning to the Charles Napier as head chef. The restaurant gained a Michelin star in 2012, which it has retained since.
The pub has exposed red brick walls and two log fires. There are also two private dining rooms available, seating 24 and 46 respectively. The low ceilings and smell of wood smoke contribute to a cosy feel, and although the place was packed on the evening of our visit, the carpet and lack of music meant that noise levels were pleasantly moderate, with tables quite well spaced.
The wine list had over 250 labels, ranging in price from £22.50 to £350, with a median price of £46. Mark-up levels averaged 2.4 times the retail price, a bargain compared to most restaurants in London, and indeed pretty much anywhere in the UK. Growers were carefully chosen too, ranging across the world, though 47% of the list was dedicated to France, and it was a pity to see just two token German white wines. Example labels were Shaw and Smith Sauvignon Banc 2011 at £35 for a wine that you can find in the high street for £12, Stag’s Leap Karia Chardonnay 2009 at £49 for a wine that retails at £23, and Lafon Rochet 2004 at £85 for a wine that costs £43 in a shop. There were some genuine bargains too: Jean-Louis Chave Hermitage 1997 was listed at £130 yet will cost you £188 to buy in a shop, and Pingus 1998 was listed at £350 but retails at £552. With so many cynical wine lists out there these days it was a pleasure to encounter one like this.
The menu was very appealing, with lots of dishes that sounded like something you might want to eat, a far cry from the culinary obstacle course that some chefs these days like to present. So – could the kitchen deliver on the promise?
A nibble of pork rillettes with apple sauce was a good start, the flavour of the pork quite hearty, the apple sauce rather thinner and less sharp than it might have been, but a sensible pairing for the richness of the meat (14/20). Bread was made from scratch, admirable in itself, but although brown rolls were reasonable, the focaccia initially delivered was dire – a stale tasting, very hard lump. Interestingly, a second basket was much better, and although still not a great focaccia it bore no resemblance to the dismal one initially served; perhaps this was one left over from an earlier service. This makes it tricky to mark, but even the better version of the bread was only 13/20 level; I scarcely have a score low enough for the focaccia initially served.
Crab (£12.50) with Gruyere beignet, frisee (curly endive) and blobs of pink grapefruit jelly had pleasant crab but a distinctly soggy beignet. The little artistic blobs of jelly did not provide enough acidity to balance the richness of the cheese (13/20 at best). Better were a trio of diver-caught scallops (£15.50), quite sweet in taste and correctly cooked, served with a slightly off-balance lime pickle and a pleasant cucumber raita (14/20).
For main course, sea bream (£22.50) was slightly though not grotesquely overcooked, served with accurately timed cauliflower and broccoli and a sultana and caper dressing. Overall this was pleasant enough, but again not quite correct (just about 13/20). I preferred loin of roe deer (£26.50), served with a little cottage pie of venison on the side and a garnish of pickled baby beetroot. The venison was served pink and had reasonable flavour, and the little pie worked well (14/20). Cabbage with bacon as a side dish (£4) was under-seasoned though mash was quite creamy in texture (13/20 on average for the side dishes).
For dessert, after some delays we eventually tried a caramelised milk chocolate mousse with yuzu, mandarin and pistachio ice cream. This time the balance was fine, the yuzu cutting through the richness of the chocolate, though the mousse itself could have had deeper flavour (13/20). Bourbon baba with muscat grape compote came with St Clements curd (sweetened orange and lemon zest) and muscovado ice cream. This worked well, the baba managing to preserve the moistness that often eludes this dish, and the other elements worked well with one another (14/20). Coffee was pleasant: I did ask what brand was used, but the waiter did not know and he never returned with the promised answer.
Service was well meaning but quite disorganised. An incorrect dish was brought to the table next to us, the waiter offering “try it and see if you like it” to the diner in question. When we came to dessert I ordered a soufflé. We waited, and waited some more; soufflés after all take some time. After over half an hour it was explained that due to a backlog of orders the kitchen had not even begun to prepare it, and maybe we could try something else? Not exactly what you would hope for in a far from cheap establishment. The bill came to £100 a head, with a bottle of excellent 1998 Chateau Musar (at £60 compared to a retail price of £29). If you shared a bottle of more modest wine then a typical bill all in would come to around £90 a head, which to be honest feels like a lot of money given the somewhat erratic experience that we had this evening. Overall the meal was rather up and down, but at no point did any dish reach Michelin star level. If I ignore the star rating then it was a quite good pub meal but at a high price point, and with service that was not up to scratch at any level.