The Mason’s arms at Knowstone, Devon – Michelin stars all round
How could you tell that the Mason’s Arms at Knowstone in Devon has a Michelin star although it looks like any other pictureque thatched Devon inn?
One clue is when the chef in immaculate whites with his name embroidered on the chest greets you as you pass the front door. Second is the large number of certificates, prizes and memorabilia from top resturants adorning the walls, not to mention the portrait of the chef himself at the entrance to the dining room. Third is the fact that every dish looks like a work of art, the food is piled into towers and the intense colours of the food dazzle the eye.
Mark Dodson who owns the Mason’s Arms with his wife Sarah has excellent credentials, having worked at Cliveden House Hotel and been Head Chef at The Waterside Inn at Bray for many years. The couple took over the Mason’s arms in June 2005 and by the July were open again for business, then in January 2006 were awarded a Michelin star which certainly helped to put them on the map. Sarah Dodson runs the front of house and we found the service by her team of ladies to be efficient and professional.
The Mason’s arms is an inn of two parts. You enter through a small bar where the local drinkers are welcomed for a pint, or you can sit on the terrace at the back with a pint and admire an uninterupted view over the lush green fields behind. My husband was welcomed into the pub with a group of thirsty walkers last time he passed through. But you get the feeling that the bar is just there to keep one foot in the local community. The real business here is undoubtedly the restaurant and the food.
You are ushered into the side room where you sit by the fire for a pre-dinner drink while some nibbles of olives, salted almonds and a hot canapé are brought to you. When you’ve ordered you go through to the dining room at the back. It’s not huge but they are clever in spacing out the bookings to maximise the orders. As we were on our way out, another couple were having their order taken, waiting to take the table.
The decor is a mixture of informal scrubbed pine tables pinched from some farmhouse kitchen, with some grown-up striped velvet chairs and expensive cutlery and glasses. The ceiling is painted with frescoes of revellers from ancient Rome and Venice adding a bit of artistic frivolity which tells you you’re not in just any Devon pub. The walls were buttercup yellow with flashes of gold and the silk curtains the colour of smoked salmon.
This is definitely the place you come for a special occasion and the other diners were almost all couples from 30s upwards who looked as they’d mentally marked it with ‘Big Night Out’. How many were celebrating birthdays, anniversaries, or just a rare night out away from the children.? My husband was convinced that the film director David Puttenham was sitting behind us, but I didn’t like to stare. Devon is full of aging rock stars and media types who value the laid back anonymity offered in the sleepy hollows and tucked away farms of Devon.
I started with some scallops with a salad and Thai dressing which was a more interesting choice than the soup that my husband chose and later I noticed that many of the other diners had gone for it too. Then I had some fish which came piled on top of a round of potatoes, topped with aubergine puree and surrounded by red and green pieces of vegetables, with a basil leaf waving like a flag on top. Guy had some steak of which the overiding impression was of intense green spinach sauce that came on top and the bright green buttons of courgettes and broad beans to one side. He said the steak was delicious and meltingly tender, but then the green fields of Devon preduce some outstanding beef. Then for pudding a trio of Rhubarb puddings – a jelly, creme brulee and a mini rhubarb crumble. It all tasted delicious and well balanced although the lasting impression was of the way it was presented so colourfully.
The only disappointment were the loos, which although clean and pleasant were more pub than Michelin star – need to replace that utilitarian lino on the floor, guys. Or perhaps they have more muddy boots coming through than they care to admit.
This is the sort of place it’s worth building a weekend around which I suppose is what we did. The bill was around £100 for two of us enjoying three courses and a couple of glasses of wine. Not cheap, but then we’re worth it and so was the meal.