Review: The Masons Arms, Knowstone
PUBLISHED: 15:28 14 August 2014
Matt Sweeting Photography
This low-key Michelin-starred pub on the edge of Exmoor offers fine dining in pub surroundings with the kind of attention to detail that takes your breath away. SUSAN CLARK went for lunch...
Chefs move to or live in Devon for the same reason as the rest of us – quality of life and lifestyle. The difference is - if we’re lucky - they may bring (or soon gain) a Michelin star and the kind of dining/cooking most of us can only aspire to.
Mark Dodson is one of those talented chefs who relocated almost a decade ago and lucky us that he did because the food he is cooking at the Masons Arms, Knowstone (it says South Molton as the location but is actually closer to Tiverton up or down the A361 link road) is worth several detours.
Step into the bar and you’ll spot an old photograph taken in the late 1980s of a group of chefs. Not just any old chefs though. This is a picture of the three-Michelin starred Michel Roux and his head chefs at the Waterside Inn, Bray. One of those chefs is Mark Dodson, chef owner of the Masons Arms. Mark happily admits he practically begged the Roux brothers for a job after eating at the Waterside Inn and that he had to take a backwards step in his career to work there. “Sometimes you have to go down to come back up again,” he says sagely.
Mark has now been running the one-Michelin-starred Masons Arms for almost a decade with his wife, Sarah, who was actually the person who had the vision to see how what had become a much neglected pub could be transformed into the Fine Dining restaurant of Mark’s dreams. It is clear they work as a partnership and I meet one of their daughters waitressing and another working hard in the kitchen.
I like the fact this is a family business that now runs like a well-oiled machine. I’ve been driving past the sign for the Masons Arms for years promising myself I’d make that detour and I am very glad I finally got around to it.
Let’s work backwards. The petit fours - a slice of marbled fudge, an orange and chocolate truffle and a mini-macaron are all hand-made. Every dish is presented beautifully and someone has thought long and hard about the tableware and the crockery - a little twist here, a classy tilt there. Nothing too shouty but definitely some very nice touches.
You can eat in the bar, the 30-cover restaurant or, if it’s summer, outdoors with a distant view across rolling Devon hills to Exmoor. The Masons Arms is a tucked-away treat and as soon as you step inside you will be glad you have come.
Mark Dodson Biography
Mark Dodson is a chef’s chef and so much so that in his listing in the prestigious Great British Chefs website, he is described as a chef who “speaks the language of comfort food with Shakespearean fluency, turning perfectly formed elements into down-to-earth (but heavenly) compositions.” Mark worked for 18 years at Michel Roux’s Waterside Inn in Bray-on-Thames, rising to head chef when the restaurant won its three Michelin stars.
The ethos here is - put simply - fantastic cooking - and with quite a lot of effort being made to open this up and make it affordable and available to all. The two course lunch menu, for example, is just £20 a head - better than many inferior Gastro-pubs I’ve eaten at.
The Masons Arms is low key which allows Mark to put all the emphasis on the food. There’s no bells, whistles or gimmicks just Fine Dining, Devon-style and clearly designed to put you and your dining companions immediately at ease.
Mark was one of just eight chefs Michael Caines worked with when he launched the 2014 Exeter Festival of South West Food & Drink - each one cooking a different course of the nine-course banquet designed to showcase Fine Dining in Devon - so make no mistake this chef is at the top of his game.
He got his star within weeks of first opening the Masons Arms and, when I visited, had just had another ‘anonymous’ inspection - the result of which is published at the end of this year. He had also just run a very successful Michelin-star ‘Pop Up’ at Huntsham Court up the road where he decamped for the day, with his entire staff, to cook a taster menu that celebrated local and seasonal produce.
masonsarmsdevon.co.uk/01398 341231 (closed Mondays)
Check the website for details of Mark’s Masterclasses which run the first Wednesday of every month and any Pops Ups he might be planning