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.

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