A fish cake named desire

SIR CHARLES NAPIER: Spriggs Alley, near Chinnor, Oxfordshire OX9 4BX. Tel: 01494 483011. Open Tues-Sat 12-2.30pm and 6.30-10pm, and Sun 12-3.30pm. Table d'hote lunch menu Tues-Sat, pounds 14.50. Average a la carte price, pounds 30. Credit cards accepted

With hindsight, I can see that opting to review a restaurant you know well, and are more than passingly fond of, is not such a good idea. You can almost guarantee that the very day you turn up on the mission, they will be operating at less than their shining best. Old favourites will be off the menu or, worse, available but depressingly poorly cooked. Staff will be run off their feet, the noise level will be at fever pitch, and it will be pouring with rain when you really longed to sit outside.

As it happens, it was our side that let down the Sir Charles Napier in the first place. We were late. Not just a bit late, not just 15 minutes late, but a whole hour late. It had been that sort of morning; my head ached and I was ready for a relaxed hour or two of peace and good food. The weathermen had got it wrong again. The glorious spring day they had promised was as grey as mud, with a chill wind to boot. My plans were all awry; it was far too cold to sit outside and let the children squabble off excess energy well away from fellow diners. We walked into the restaurant, past the heavy frying-pan that acts as ballast to pull the door shut, and into a maelstrom of late Sunday lunchers.

The Sir Charles Napier is heavenly to walk into on a cold, blustery evening, with its extremity-warming real log fires, shabby chic sagging armchairs, quiet hum of contented conversation, and the quirky, curvaceous sculptures that are dotted here and there. Once a month I meet an old London friend here - it lies almost exactly half-way between our homes - and together we settle in and relax into the comfort and warmth, to gossip away the hours.

It is just as heavenly when the sun blasts down. A quick spin from Oxford, and just the right distance from London (turn off junction six of the M40, take the road to Chinnor, turn right at the only roundabout you come to, then keep going until you are sure you've taken the wrong turning and see it loom up on your right) to escape to for lunch and a spot of countryside.

We celebrated my husband's fortieth birthday here one warm day under the vines, and there's plenty of green space for children to hurtle around in (complete with sculptures, some solid enough to be ridden by small bottoms - the snail and the pig get top ratings from our two).

I know now that the one time not to be recommended, especially en famille, is around two o'clock on a less than clement Sunday afternoon. The two dining rooms are packed to the hilt, and there's barely room to swing a haggis in the bar. The noise level is ferocious, and though the young waitresses, clad in casual but figure-hugging black, keep their cool and their charm remarkably well, the kitchen staff seem less able to cope. Mind you, the healthy collection of Mercedes, Jags and BMWs in the car park suggests that most of their more affluent clients positively relish the snug, noisy atmosphere as a backdrop for a spot of food on a Sunday.

Aah, yes ... the food. Stylewise, we're talking modern British, or a bit of everything. As the Sir Charles Napier has a first-rate fish supplier, it always features heavily on the menu unless the weather's been particularly stormy. The fish cakes have been steadily improving over the years I've been eating here, and the children's haddock and leek one was a show-stopper - quite the best yet. It was actually more of a cannonball than a cake, with melting threads of leek stowed away inside and the whole floating in a slick of mushroom beurre blanc. There was heartfelt approval all round, with we parents wresting what we could from our progeny. This was quite justifiable on my part, since my crab spring roll was way too heavy on filo pastry and too light on crab, and I was disappointed that the mango chutney it came with was impec- cably fresh and fruity. There was not a trace of Major Grey's bottled variety, which was what I really lusted after.

My other half had less excuse - his goat's cheese and pepper tart was pretty much as you would expect, nothing electrifying but a perfectly pleasant partnership of salty cheese with smoky, sweet pepper and acceptably short shortcrust. He muttered something under his breath about it being left hanging around a bit, but failed to elaborate as he lunged for a forkful of the rapidly disappearing fish ball.

I won on round two. His halibut was boring, he complained; the lime and whatever it was sabayon (neither of us could remember the other qualitative ingredient, and we couldn't taste it either) was no help at all. But my char-grilled tuna was just so - moist, pink enough and with an undercarriage of fennel confit that sprinted it to first place. They are good at fennel at the Sir Charles N. Not so long ago I ate a brilliant dish of melting, browned fennel partnered with sweet potato and black pudding here: a most unlikely but superb combination of flavour and texture. This confit worked every bit as well, sweet and mildly aniseedy, as tender as butter, and unctified by a fennel and olive oil puree - very modern med a la mode anglaise. I could have eaten it by the bowlful.

There is, happily, relatively little that is modern or med about the puddings as an indulgent and unhealthy British streak comes into play on the last lap. How often do you see Queen of Puddings on a restaurant menu these days? Here it was, and not at all bad either with its trembling egg and breadcrumb custard base, warm strawberry jam and swirls of soft merin-gue on top. The sticky date pudding, I'm sorry to say, was burnt, and even the lake of molten toffee sauce and cream it was swathed in could not disguise the fact. Now, I happen to know that this can be a triumph of dastardly, devastating, dense, moist, sticky, fudgey, overwhelming delight. I first tasted it on a hot summer afternoon when it was totally inappropriate as puddings go and quite blissful, nonetheless. A shame then, that on this totally appropriate day, it fell short of the mark.

Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker