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Mason's Arms: Fishing for compliments

02 March 2006
Mason's Arms: Fishing for compliments

It's a crisp, blue-skied February day and chef-proprietor Mark Dodson, his former boss Michel Roux and his sous chef Darren Edwards gather outside the kitchen door to inspect fish.

Roux, whose legendary Waterside Inn is located inland at Bray in Berkshire, is impressed by the freshness of the produce, supplied by Devon-based El Pescadero. Most of the produce is sourced from Devon and Cornish coastal waters, or rivers within a couple of hours' drive of the Mason's Arms in Knowstone.

There are lovely, squirming, freshwater crayfish from the Cotswolds; mussels from the nearby River Exe; clams from Plymouth; and mackerel, gurnard ("one of the best for bouillabaisse," says Roux), a huge, bright-eyed John Dory, lemon sole, red mullet and sea bass.

"We give El Pescadero the order every night and they drive to Brixham and get it fresh every day," says Dodson. "It's beautiful, you can't get it any fresher."

However, it's not only the freshness of his fish that Roux has cause to envy, it's the cost of the catch - probably 20-30% cheaper than the Waterside Inn has to fork out for equivalent produce. Scallops are 85p a shot, for instance, against £1.30 for delivery to Bray; and monthly spend on fish is an average of £1,200 at the Mason's.

But then, there is less mileage involved in delivery.

That comparatively lower pricing extends to most of the Mason's Arms' other produce, including game - which, again, is caught locally. In fact, Dodson makes Roux's day when he produces a brace of teal (also supplied by the fishmonger) for his mentor to take home with him. "I've got too much, can't get rid of it," he explains.

It's Roux's first visit to the Mason's Arms and he's generally impressed. "When I walked in, if I hadn't known better, I would have thought that you had been established here for four to six years - that's true professionalism," he confides to Dodson and his wife and co-owner, Sarah.

The trio are chatting in the newly redecorated dining room which, with its stripped and polished floor, dechintzed curtains and modern artwork, has taken on a far more clean and modern air than when the couple bought the property last summer.

The Dodsons deliberately delayed any refurbishment until after Christmas (traditionally, a slower period in the restaurant trading calendar), preferring to get their tills ringing immediately. "You got your priority right," says Roux, approvingly. "You opened the place, gave it your own skill rather than a facelift, and didn't try to do too much at first. Good food, friendly service, the right pricing - it's very important, you don't get a second chance when you're operating in the country."

He continues: "Get the product right, that's the thing - and in this you have an advantage, being small, because you have full control over everything and can maintain the quality. The downside is you can't afford to be ill, because everything relies on you."

The talk naturally expands to discussion of the Mason's Arms' newly acquired Michelin star, and the local and national media coverage and consequential bookings it has brought. Roux's advice to Mark and Sarah is to keep a cool head and continue to build a loyal, local customer base. "It's very important that you use local suppliers," he says, "and it's my strong belief that Michelin will help for a bit. It'll go crazy for a few weeks but then calm down, and that's when you need your regulars."

The phone certainly has gone haywire since Michelin bestowed the star on the Mason's Arms in January, and not only because of the number of calls. The system decided to give up and die, giving the Dodsons an unforeseen expense of nearly £1,000 to replace it. "We've BT Versatility now," says Mark, "and I must say they've won me back, because they got it ordered and up and running within six days."

To mark his former boss's inaugural visit to Knowstone, Mark decides to open a bottle of 1970 Château Palmer which he bought on his 21st birthday, just over a quarter of a century ago, and laid down for a special occasion. But the cork is proving troublesome. "There you are - that's your challenge," says Sarah, presenting Roux with the corkscrew and a decanter. Much careful coaxing of a rotting cork later, Roux is pouring the wine into a glass. "It's still alive," he pronounces, "worth the wait!"

Reflecting on the Dodsons' achievement over lunch (seared sea bass followed by a piece of "wonderful" red Devon beef, a breed new to Roux), the maestro is generous in praising not only his former head chef but Sarah. "Look at her," he says. "She really owns the dining room, she's very confident in what she's doing and that's a great credit to her, because she has done nothing like this before."

Does he have any advice for the couple? "Right now," he tells them, "carry on the way you are, build up a good cash-flow and save money for your next move. Don't get carried away - there's nothing worse than spending money where you don't need to."

He concludes: "You must never forget where your market is, and price accordingly. In six months' time, take stock and plan where you want to go."

The story so far

The property: Mason's Arms, Knowstone, Devon (bought: 21 June 2005)
Owners: Mark and Sarah Dodson
Purchase price: "close to" £695,000
What is it? 13th-century inn with small bar and lounge, plus 18-seat restaurant
Early accolades: Egon Ronay Restaurant and Gastropub Guide, one star; rave review by Jan Moir in Daily Telegraph, 30 June
January turnover: £13,000 gross (restaurant closed, 2-19 January)
Target annual turnover: £275,000 gross

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