A little local colour

11 August 2005
A little local colour

"I've never seen her before," admits Mark with admirable sang-froid, "and if she hadn't introduced herself at the end of the meal I wouldn't have realised that she'd been in until I'd seen the review."

Luckily for the Dodsons - and Mark's cooking, in particular - Moir was impressed with the food in the 18-seat restaurant at the Knowstone inn.

"The food is of an incredibly high standard," she pronounced in the review, which appeared on 30 July, singling out the "delicious" beef (more about that later) and giving her seal of approval to the "perfectly seared" duck foie gras.

The fact that Dodson was able to put out such high-quality food immediately after getting into the kitchen of the Mason's Arms has a lot to do with his skills as a chef - and the craft of his young sous chef, Darren Edwards, who worked with him at Cliveden and, more recently, at the one-Michelin-starred 36 on the Quay in Emsworth, Hampshire.

Local suppliers But careful menu planning and sourcing quality ingredients are just as important in maintaining consistency and high standards in dishes. And before moving to Devon Dodson decided he was going to hunt out local suppliers and, wherever possible, make the Mason's Arms synonymous with West Country ingredients.

It's a sensible, as well as practical, policy because it gives the inn a great marketing tool: rooting your identity in an area goes down well with local customers - the mainstay of any country restaurant - and attracts foodies from afar who don't want to duplicate the dining experience they might find in a metropolitan hub. And being on the edge of Exmoor means that Devon, Cornwall and Somerset are all close by, so "local" for Dodson embraces all three areas.

So far, he has managed to track down a butcher in the nearby village of Dulverton who supplies him with meat from a herd of Devon's own Ruby Red cattle. "I've never used it before, but it's superb - like butter, just melts in your mouth," he enthuses.

Fruit and veg is another story. Dodson gets some from a Barnstaple-based supplier, but the reliability of supply has sometimes been problematic. On the morning I visited, the daily delivery hadn't shown up for lunch service. "He's not very good at communicating any last-minute unavailability of anything," Dodson says. "We only find out when it's not in the box, and sometimes I need to give 24 hours' notice if I want to get in anything other than basic staples. But the quality's good."

As Moir discovered, Dodson is adept at translating quality ingredients into quality dishes. He's kept the menu choice to five options at each level, plus four daily specials, and the dishes are not overly elaborate. Fussiness wouldn't be appropriate for the setting - oak-beamed inn, bare floorboards, no table linen - and, with only two chefs in the kitchen, would open the door to inconsistency during busy services. Dishes with a high element of mise en place and last-minute cooking-off of central elements are geared to making kitchen life manageable.

Among the dishes that were scoring well with diners on my visit in July were a ham hock terrine with a grain mustard dressing (£7.50), medallions of monkfish wrapped in Parma ham served with a scallop and caramelised orange (£15.50), the beef fillet (served with an onion marmalade and leaf spinach at £16.50), and a mixed berry crème brÁ»lée (£6).

Artisan producers The cheeseboard (£7) has also proved a success. The supplier is a national operator (Premier Cheese) but, staying true to the Dodson's brief of keeping local, it has sourced only in the West Country among mainly artisan producers. Varieties change depending on availability, but cheeses such as Little Rydings, Somerset Rambler, the pungent Abbey Gold, the Brie-like Bath Soft, Kelston Park, and Tymsboro' are regulars, along with a creamy Devon Blue.

Moir didn't mention the cheeses in her review, but it has had an immediate effect at the Mason's Arms. Since it came out the phone hasn't stopped ringing. The reservations book is filling up six weeks in advance.

"People who are coming down here in two or three weeks' time are booking on the back of that article. Last week's turnover touched £6,000, including VAT," reveals Mark. And as he and Sarah had forecast a turnover of £2,750 for the end of July, that's definitely a result.

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