Wednesday, 27 March 2019

The Masons Arms, Devon

Quite apart from the quality of the food served, or the level of service offered by the front of house, I sometimes think when writing up rural gastropubs I should have a separate score, or at least apply a heavy weighting, to anywhere occupying a particularly charming ancient building. Obviously, having dinner in a low-beamed 13th century coaching inn doesn't automatically make everything else wonderful, but I can promise you that if everything else isn't wonderful, a log fire, tiny lead-lined windows, stone-flagged floors and wobbly narrow passageways make the whole experience a lot more bearable.

So upon entering the Masons Arms, an 800-year-old gastropub tucked away on the outskirts of Exmoor, it's immediately clear that, whatever else happened that evening, the prospect of being able to debrief afterwards in what is by some distance one of the most enchantingly pretty snugs I've had the pleasure of encountering in some years certainly helped cushion the uncertainty of how dinner may turn out. The place is beautiful - an almost exaggerated fairytale ideal of what an old country pub should be, like something out of a Tolkein novel.

In the end anyway, we needn't have worried about dinner. Head chef Mark Dodson learned his trade working with Michel Roux at the Waterside Inn, and though it's probably fair to say that multi-starred Gallic style has become less trendy in recent years, there's still no good reason to dismiss it out of hand - when the French do food well, they do it very well indeed. Dinner began in the aforementioned cozy bar with a couple of classy nibbles - tuna tartare on cucumber with a lovely note of toasted sesame oil, and a supremely light chicken liver parfait on fried bread.

In the main dining room (spacious, pleasant and with a celestial scene painted on the ceiling) it continued. House breads were a decent sourdough (I think I've been a bit spoiled when it comes to sourdough) and a nice warm granary bun, whose delicate crust cracked to reveal a nice soft, warm crumb. We appreciated the choice of butter or oil/balsamic, too.

Often the most impressive dishes take a simple premise - in this case, a tomato soup - and through application of classical techniques turn it into something quite special. The best way of describing it - and I hope they don't take this as a criticism, because it isn't - is as a kind of turbocharged Heinz Cream of Tomato, with an incredible depth of flavour and a distinct-but-not-overpowering hit of garlic.

Apologies for the terrible photo of this beetroot arancini dish - it was a lot better than I've made it look. The slicks and blobs of beetroot (including an interesting tube of pickled white beetroot) were very nice, and combined with a horseradish cream it had all the best flavours of early spring. But the real stars, are you might imagine, were the arancini themselves - thick with salty cheese and delicately crisp on the outside.

I'm yet to come across a combination of guinea fowl and morels that I don't like, and this, accompanied by sweet roast fennel and a very clever portion of mousse inside a fragile breadcrumbed cylinder, which was great fun. If I'm going to be brutal, the guinea fowl itself was just slightly on the dry side - not enough to spoil it, but enough to notice. Still, the cream sauce was lovely, with the morels bursting in the mouth quite addictively, and I still polished it all off.

Scallops (a starter ordered as a main) were perfectly cooked, with a delicate golden crust, and sat in a rich brown bisque. They came with a couple of cute breadcrumbed squid rings, and studded into the bisque were a handful of fregola, adding a bit of texture and heft. This was a delightful seafood starter, exactly the kind of thing you hope for from a chef trained in the classical disciplines, top ingredients married to perfect execution. And disastrously represented thanks to my terrible photography.

Halibut was less successful. Rather underpowered and underseasoned, it didn't really live up to its price tag, and felt very odd next to everything that had come before. In fact, it was the only genuinly disappointing dish of the whole meal. I won't dwell on it - there's not much more to say, for one thing - but you do wonder how they managed to slip up on this one where most other areas seasoning had been spot-on.

Anyway, the good news is desserts were brilliant. First, rhubarb three ways - a vibrant jelly, an incredible rhubarb-spiked crème brûlée, and an ideal soufflé, light and fluffy and with a perfect rise, without a hint of greasiness. Some good pastry work going on at the Masons.

This pineapple and rub shortbread affair impressed as well. Rum and pineapple are always a good match, but stacking into a kind of cakey millefuille lent an extra layer of buttery goodness. Plus one of those ultra-smooth and creamy ice creams on the side.

Coffee came with a selection of chocolatey nibbles which I completely forgot to take a photo of. Sorry. But they were nice. And pretty generous of them to bring out petits fours for three, really, considering only one of us had coffee.

And generosity - of spirit and soul - is really what makes a restaurant like this. Yes, I can pick fault with seasoning and timing here and there, but ultimately we enjoyed a big warm hug of a meal, as cozy and enjoyable as time spent in their quaint front bar, all helped by incredibly friendly and engaged front of house staff (led by Sarah Dodson herself) who are clearly loving serving the food just as much as customers love eating it. I should probably say that our bill was smaller than average thanks to one of us ordering just mains and dessert, and another having two starters, but even so you can pay far more for far worse. Far worse. So if you're ever in the area and you're in the mood for a classy dinner served with an extra helping of charm, the Masons Arms comes thoroughly recommended. Or you could just come for a pint in the front bar and pretend you're a hobbit on the way to Mordor. Both sound like fun to me.


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