Another cracking spring morning, and the Ewing's birthday to boot. So what nicer way to celebrate than heading out in to the rolling Oxfordshire countryside for a pint and a pub lunch.
Recommended to us by the Ewing's boss The Charles Napier is only about 20 minutes from our door, but had somehow fallen off my radar. After tapping the address into the sat nav, and merrily setting off, I soon realised why. This isn't the sort of place you are likely to randomly stumble upon. After turning up yet another precipitous and winding track the Ewing nervously remarked that, apart from the lack of snow on the Chiltern Hills in the distance, we could be navigating an alpine pass. We even encountered a few stray sheep to really set the scene.
After the traumas of getting there in one piece we both needed a stiff drink. Unfortunately we still had to get back again so instead settled for a pint of, very nicely kept, Wadworth 6x. The dark and cosy front bar, with its big leather sofas and open fireplace, looked the perfect place to hole up on a cold winter's evening. As the glorious weather was still holding we decided to sit outside in the vine covered patio area, overlooking the sculpture garden and grounds beyond.
On the way through the dining area I spotted a cloth covered platter, with an great, oozing wedge of cheese peeking out, another promising sign that we were in for a treat. Looking at the menu further confirmed it; not only did it I want to eat everything, but they were also offering great value two course set menu for just £15.50.
Pick of the bread selection was the warm raisin and walnut roll. Soft and floury, it went down well with a smear of salted butter and another pint of bitter for me. (The birthday girl, and designated driver for the day, was promised plenty of prosecco on our return)
Double baked smoked haddock and cheddar souffle came looking simple and unprepossessing. A cracked yellow dome in a puddle of pale sauce, studded with flakes of fish, parsley and chives. I've had a few twice cooked souffles before, but none nearly as ethereal as this. It melted in the mouth, like eating a smokey, cheesy cloud of loveliness.
The Ewing's new season asparagus came with a perfectly poached, crispy hen's egg, with a yolk of the most amazing yellow hue. The accompanying hollandaise was perfectly light and lemony, and in less polite company, I may well have resorted to drinking it straight from the jug.
We both went with the Bouillabaisse for a main. This was a cracking piece of cooking that managed to look as pretty as a picture, but still packed a Provencal flavour punch. Nicely cooked fillets of red mullet and bream sat a top a bed of new potatoes and samphire, cockles and clams nestling in between. The best bit was throwing rouille covered croutons into a pool of delicious orange and anise scented broth at the bottom of the dish.
Despite the lightness of touch shown in the previous two courses I was almost defeated by the time they bought us the pudding menu. Struggling gamely on I ordered scoops of brown bread and peanut butter and banana, rum and raisin ice creams. A welcoming cold and tasty ending; I particularly enjoyed the contrast from the nuggets of boozy fruit and crunch of the peanuts, although the unannounced (blackcurrant?) element was slightly odd.
The Ewing indulged her first love by choosing the chocolate tart, served with bitter orange ice cream. 'Delicious!' And 'mmm...' were about the only comments I could elicit from her as she chased the remaining pastry crumbs and blobs of almond puree around the plate.
After lunch we decided to take advantage of the beautiful weather by taking a romantic stroll around the gardens. Unfortunately the table next to us had the same idea at the same time, so we spent a few comical laps trying to avoid each other by climbing over styles and cutting through the long grass. The grounds are quite lovely, complete with a herb garden we saw being plundered by the chef and several benches that looked perfect for a postprandial slump.
As you may already have gathered from the unqualified praise above I found our meal at the Charles Napier to be some of the best judged and skillful cooking I have eaten for a long while. With food that is fantastic, faultless and a veritable bargain to boot it's well worth braving the wilds of Oxon for.