Published 12 March 2000 Style Magazine 348th article
Back, Julie Griffiths and Chris; front, Michael Winner and Caroline at the Sir Charles Napier (Miss Lid the Third)
It was on a Sunday film reconnaissance that my production designer suggested the Sir Charles Napier near Chinnor in Oxfordshire. I rang up. The owner, a nice lady called Julie Griffiths, said: "We'll squeeze you in. How many will you be?" "Six," I replied, thinking this would cause a problem. It did. Julie could only manage two. On a recent Sunday, years later, I booked with her daughter, the equally charming Caroline. I told my neighbour, the lyricist Don Black, that I was going. He said: "You won't like it. The tables are very close together." On the way I phoned again. "Are the tables close together?" I asked. "Not yours," said Caroline. "We're not that silly."
We arrived at a pebbly car park to find the flintstone and brick inn next to a tacky housing estate. Julie showed us to a nice table by the window, facing a paved terrace and guests' cars. I was introduced to Caroline's husband, Chris, who does the wines. Chris said he wouldn't offer me the normal wines by the glass, he'd bring a special bottle and finish it himself later as a treat. "I want you to try it," he said, "because it's quite an eclectic choice." "Don't give me a test, I'm useless," I pleaded. It was a very smooth Hamilton Russell, South African Pinot Noir 1998. Chris altered his description of it to "capricious".
I ordered casserole of snails a la catalane. Why, I don't know. You have to be a twit to order a typical Spanish dish at an English pub in the middle of Oxfordshire. To compound my silliness I ordered a main course of bouillabaisse with saffron potatoes. Why didn't I order English stuff like roast pork with crackling (which I love), or roast beef, or even braised oxtail? I soon wished I had. There was a very dead bit of toast stuck in the middle of my starter. The snails were small, rubbery and of no taste whatsoever. The surrounding chopped-up veggies were quite nice. The bouillabaisse was poor. The white fish was all right but uninteresting, the sauce or soup with it was of no taste I've ever associated with bouillabaisse. Dull in the extreme. On a scale of 1 to 10, the bouillabaisse at Tetou in Golfe-Juan in the south of France is a 10. This was a weak 5.
Miss Lid enjoyed (though was not crazy about) both her starter of the timbale of crab with lemon juice and her main course of pan-fried scallops with celeriac and truffle ravioli. She also praised her fresh orange juice.
My table was a reasonable distance from the ones on either side, but the atmosphere became claustrophobic because I was surrounded by large groups. The lady nearest me was making swimming gestures with her hands, then other ever-widening arm movements as she got further carried away. I wondered if it was some sort of sign language and the people she was addressing were deaf.
The desserts were very good indeed. Miss Lid had hot date cake with toffee sauce. I thought it was terrific. Not overfancy, solid, lovely taste and texture. My pithivier of almonds and dried fruit had good flaky pastry and was a pleasant experience. There were no silly red squiggle decorations round the plate, just two excellent, solid desserts deserving top marks.
The other diners were very nice people. There was a good atmosphere. Guests are obviously deeply loyal to the Sir Charles Napier. They were concerned I should write well of it. I liked them all, even though I feel compelled to write as I find.
The oddest thing was the bill. I never look at bills. I just pay them. But one of the food guides noted a surcharge of £1 when a second starter was taken in place of a main course. Quite fair, I thought. Miss Lid had done that so I checked the bill. First I found we'd been overcharged 75p on our two starters. Not a lot, but overcharging nevertheless. Julie apologised by fax. Then I noticed the scallops and the bouillabaisse came, as per menu, to £24.25. But we'd been charged £31. When we queried it we were told £4.25 was added to the scallops to make them a main course. And a Further £2.50 was for the vegetables. But vegetables were included without charge for all main courses. Miss Lid's starter had been upgraded to a main course by a surcharge of almost 50%. Surely that qualiﬁed it as a main course and for free veggies like everyone else. Well, it didn't. Thank goodness I don't look at bills very often. The mental turmoil would be too great. Even for me.
I have to disagree with Ceri Brooks's letter (Style, February 20) regarding the River Room at the Savoy. We recently enjoyed an excellent pretheatre dinner, where the food, wine and service were all first class and superb value for money. Michael Winner should keep going there. We certainly will.
Tony Speed, Camberley, Surrey
Is it my imagination or are Michael Winner and his column retreating further and further into the magazine? It won't be long before they finish up alongside the Help! column. Mind you, that might not be so bad - perhaps Mrs Mills could sort out his culinary problems for him.
Alton Douglas, King's Norton, W Midlands
I have just found Michael Winner's review of the Royal Pavilion (Style, February 6) on the Sunday Times website. I haven't stopped laughing since. It is nothing short of brilliant - and deadly accurate. The trouble is that the old regime at the Royal Pavilion, when it was at its best, spoiled its guests for anything less.
Mary S Lovell, by e-mail
I always enjoy reading Michael Winner's fair-minded column, so I was interested to learn of his book, Winner's Dinners. However, I did feel the price - £16.95 - was rather hefty. I have now received a catalogue from a book club, offering the book at £1.50. This still seems to be a trifle on the high side. Does anybody know where I can get one for free?
Hugh Wilson, London
I was in the main restaurant (300 tables) at the station in Archangel, northern Russia. It was 6.30am and outside it was dark and a chilly -22C. I sat down with my colleague, Sergei, at a table in the middle of the huge room and ordered bread, eggs, cheese and tea. We were the only diners in the entire building, although the other tables were all set for the day. Suddenly, about 60yd behind us, the dining-room door opened and an old lady came across the room. Ignoring the 299 other tables, she sat in the chair next to me. She produced a jar of gherkins and some bread, ordered a cup of tea and started to eat. I couldn't understand why she had chosen to sit with us, so Sergei asked the waitress. She turned towards me, her face flushed with anger: "A westerner like you should be ashamed to ask such a question. This is what we Russians call democracy."
Graeme Jamieson, Aberdeen
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