For the past 12 years Roux-trained Mark Dodson has been serving up Michelin-starred food at the end of a one-street village (Knowstone) in the wilds of North Devon. That is only part of the story, however.
The modern-build restaurant, Masons Arms, sits at the back of a 13th-century thatched inn and comes complete with a ceiling fresco of female nudes, left by the inn’s previous owners (views of the bucolic adjacent valley are just as much of a talking point but possibly hold more general appeal).
At the front of the inn, however, looking towards the village church, there’s a cosy, beamed bar where locals make themselves comfortable in front of an inglenook fireplace. This combination, plus the fact the place is family-run, makes it feel more like a friendly French auberge than a starchy high-end country restaurant.
Navigating yourself here across the moor, through tangled lanes, is part of the charm – but the inn’s remote location also means Dodson’s French-style cooking sometimes fails to get the attention it deserves (his forthcoming cookbook, This Is Mine, should help with that).
Mark has an outstanding pedigree, having headed the kitchens at Michel Roux’s Waterside Inn, at Bray, for 12 years. No surprise, then, that his cooking is classic French. But it’s not exclusively so: one of Mark’s signature starters is Italian-style arancini, and his Asian-inspired seared peppered tuna with oriental salad proved so popular when the inn opened that it’s been on and off the à la carte menu ever since.
Surrounded by rolling Devonshire fields, and within easy reach of the coast, Mark has prime ingredients at his fingertips – in fact you watch cows grazing as you eat. All the meat comes from Anne Petch at Heal Farm, at nearby King’s Nympton, and fish is fresh from Brixham.
Standout dishes at Masons Arms include turbot encased in a sage crust (secret ingredient: Parmesan), teamed with romanesco cauliflower, button-sized trompette mushrooms and a chive-spiked bath of beurre blanc that was light and rich at the same time.
Don’t miss the peach parfait dessert, either: a triumph of poached peach and almond ice cream, although I’d have liked the ice cream even more almondy. Then there’s the raspberry soufflé and sorbet: the nearest Mark gets to a signature dish, it has been known to start diners squealing with delight.
Drinks are overseen by Mark’s wife, Sarah, and the wine list was composed with the help of Mark’s former boss (now pal) Michel Roux. Unsurprisingly, big-hitting French Bordeaux and Burgundies dominate the wine list, although other parts of the world are well represented too. But one of the inn’s star sparkling wines comes from nearby Yearlstone vineyard.
Many of the wines, including the fizz, are available by the glass but if you want to splash out, there are some seriously good labels on offer, including a 2003 Chateau Palmer Bordeaux at £380 a bottle. Local ales, meanwhile, include Tawny Owl from Somerset’s Cotleigh Brewery on draught, and various bottles from Bays Brewery in Torbay. There’s local cider, too.
It’s rare to come across a true family business, and what a difference it makes to the atmosphere. At Masons Arms the people serving you really care that their customers are having a great time. The service provided by Mark and Sarah’s university-student daughters on my visit was as seamless, graceful and knowledgeable as I’ve come across anywhere.
Though the Masons Arms has no bedrooms on site, Rosemary Cottage B&B is in the same village and many diners take the chance to stay over, tempted also by the B&B’s promise of cream tea on arrival (served in front of the inglenook fireplace in winter or outside if it’s fine).
For hiking off long lunches and dinners, the inn stands on the Two Moors Way, Devon’s coast-to-coast footpath (it stretches out across Exmoor and Dartmoor). Or you can try to master some of Mark’s cooking techniques by booking onto one of the masterclasses he holds on the first Wednesday of each month.
And while the à la carte dinner pricing means you’re only likely to dine at the Masons Arms for a treat (the lunches are a steal at £25 for three courses or £21 for two), it’s easy to make a weekend of it and eat out on your second night at another thatched gastropub, the Grove Inn at nearby Kings Nympton.
The Mason’s Arms, Knowstone, North Devon, EX36 4RY, masonsarmsdevon.co.uk
Words | Clare Hargreaves, clarehargreaves.co.uk; @larderloutUK
Photographs | Clare Hargreaves