Pub food in Britain: The Good

Travelling home along Britains ‘A’ roads, and stopping for food can be gastronomically challenging. If it’s a long journey you don’t want to stop at half-a-dozen pubs and check them out before getting back in the car, because they’re not good enough; you’d never get where you’re going. So you stop at the first one you like the look of and put up with whatever they happen to serve. Sometimes the pubs aren’t at the side of the road either, and you follow a road-sign that says ‘Pub 1 mile’, then it’s just pot luck.

Lost in deepest, darkest Devon

We did this on our journey back from Mortehoe, we hadn’t even got out of Devon, but we were hungry, and it was half-past lunch time. So we followed the sign. You’ve heard of ‘a country mile’, it’s like a regular mile only longer, longer by an indeterminate length, and when you start down that ‘1 mile’ your destination could always be around the next bend, but never is, so you keep on going. We eventually found the pub, at least it **looked** like a pub. There was a menu on the wall outside, but we didn’t stop to look, it was starting to rain again. We went in, and the inside looked like a pub, the were the beams and horse-brass, an open fire with logs burning, looked very cosy. We asked if they served food and were told yes. So we sat with beer and a menu.

Clearing my head of the long drive down many a country lane I soaked up the ambience, and the beer before looking at the menu. I only had my attention drawn to it by the favourable noises my wife was making. What could she possibly have seen on a British pub menu that would cause her to make the same noises she makes when looking at handbags that cost more than I earn in a week? So I looked. Now *this* was a menu! I don’t know how we’d done it, but some fluke of luck (perhaps it was karma rewarding us for the previous three evenings penance) had brought us to a restaurant which used to be a pub, and it wasn’t just any restaurant either.

The Masons Arms

The pub was [The Masons Arms] [1] in Knowstone, just off the A361 quite near the middle of nowhere. My wife and I woke in our tent that morning to the sound of rain. It continued to rain. We ran to the toilets/showers, and back. We sat and watched the rain while making coffee, and drinking coffee. And we got rained on while we put the tent away. As you can, I’m sure, imagine our appearance was not as we’d choose for dining out. But we were having a pub lunch, so what the hell.

Time was marching on and we had miles to cover so we just wanted a main course and to get back on the road. My wife ordered Devon Beef Fillet, Courgette and Carrot Ribbons, Potato Fondant, Tarragon Jus, and I, the Pot Roasted Breast of Guinea Fowl, Leaf Spinach, Cassis and Honey Jus (that’s a lot of Jus!). We were still sat in the bar, near the fire enjoying our drinks when a waitress called us to our table – **very** un-pub like!

The dining room

Walking into the dining room for lunch is like going outside, even on a wet day, daylight pours through the windows. It is a small dining room, but all patrons have plenty of space, I think there are only six tables. The views across rolling Devon countryside are beautiful, it’s difficult not to stare over the shoulders of other diners! If are unfortunate to be seated without a view (difficult in this double-aspect room) the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel has been transported for your delight. And then your meal arrives.

Good food in a British pub

Dishes are presented with at least as much care for appearance as went into preparation. It doesn’t quite look too good to eat, especially if you haven’t eaten and feel like you could eat a horse, but it’s good enough that you stop to appreciate it before eating. Everything was cooked to perfection. The meat was tender, flavourful, and was complimented wonderfully by the other ingredients. The dish was a delight. My wife’s steak looked a very carefully selected cut, and she says it was melt-in-the-mouth tender. If it was half as good as mine it was very good indeed.

Unfortunately time was not on our side and we couldn’t stay for desert, there were too many more miles to cover and an appointment to keep. So, though I can’t tell you about them, here are some other items from the menu.

starters

– Puff Pastry of Mushroom Duxelles and Poached Egg, St Enodoc Asparagus, Hollandaise Sauce
– Duo of Chicken Liver Parfait and Ham Hock Terrine, Vegetables á la Grecque, Brioche Toast
– Pan Fried Scallops with Thai Salad, Rice Wine Dressing

The first two sound a bit pretentious, but from the quality of the main course, they’re entitled to use whatever language they choose!

deserts

– Pear and Frangipane Tart, Chocolate Sorbet
– Iced Aniseed Parfait, Blackcurrant Coulis
– Lemon and Marscapone Mousse, Passion Fruit Syrup

The second one sounds very good indeed.

conclusion

We visited [The Masons Arms] [1] on a wet Wednesday lunch-time, and were lucky to find one empty table. It’s in the middle of nowhere, none of the rest of the clientele looked as if they’d travelled as we had, they’d travelled a few miles to the middle of nowhere for one reason, and that was Good Food. And that’s what they received. I feel very lucky to have stumbled upon this gem of a restaurant, after all, I could have turned right two hundred yards earlier and followed the sign to another pub. Considering it’s location I’d be surprised if we ever visit again, but I’ll keep my fingers crossed.

serendipity

As fortune would have it I was in Somerset a few weeks later on business, very close to Exmoor and the Devon border. Looking at the map, I don’t think I was more than about four miles away. Sadly, a dining experience like that is best shared, and I was travelling alone. I did, however, mention the restaurant to the barman in [The Lion] [2] in Dulverton, where I stayed overnight, and he too has dined there. He also told me that the chef owner of The Masons Arms used to work at The Waterside Inn at Bray, for Michel Roux no less. I see from the web-site that he was there eighteen years, thirteen of which were as head chef. Now, you don’t get better references than that! So, if you’re in the area, you **must** give it a try, you won’t be disappointed.

[1]: http://www.masonsarmsdevon.co.uk/
[2]: http://www.lionhoteldulverton.com/