Whether its accommodation or food I have discovered there is nothing like a quintessential English pub – and by that, I mean a pub that manages to balance local traditions of real ales but is also passionate about delivering a great dining experience and value-for-money.
One such place is the Mason’s Arms in Oxfordshire which also has rooms and is part of an embryonic chain of innovative pub restaurants. It was fairly easy to find in the middle of the countryside at least with a satnav. After turning off the M40 and taking the A40 towards Oxford I skirt round the city and head towards Gloucester. About 10 miles on I take a left down a lane leading to the village of South Leigh, just south of Witney and I soon see the thatched roof of the 16th century limestone inn called Mr Hanbury’s Mason Arms peeping over a wall.
The car park looks busy even around 2ish on a weekday so I take this as a good sign. I am a little late for my reservation (accident on M40) so they have put me on a lovely little table in the bar and given me a very warm welcome nevertheless. My table is outside the main restaurant but I am glad as there are some very rowdy fellows in there downing port. And it seems I am in pole position to hear the pub gossip, not far from the huge roaring fire – lovely and comforting on this cold wintry day.
So, glass of Rioja in hand I chose my food from the menu: a starter of smoked ham hock terrine, black pudding, pickles and garden herbs (£8); a main course of 32-day aged rump steak, roasted onion and bone marrow sauce, triple cooked chips (£25) and the irresistible sounding Blood Orange Cheesecake (£7) and to drink mineral water. There is also a Garden Menu which I suppose counts as the menu du jour with 2 courses for £20 or 3 courses for £25.
I note the very large pink neon sign over the fireplace that reads “What Did I Do Last Night?”. Hmm I think that is a bit unusual in a village pub! but apparently its part of the owners’ desire to make their offering a little bit different – decadent? Also for some a cheeky reminder that we should perhaps be beware of drinking too much!!
With nothing else to do while waiting for my meal I sit and take in my surroundings. At the next table is an elderly and clearly well-heeled American man – kitted out English gent style in an expensive Saville Row tweedy country jacket and silk socks – who is conversing with a local. Although they are two tables away I easily overhear the conversation. The American is, he says, over on a regular jaunt to the Cotswolds and reveals that he frequently dines with “The Duke” and his wife while he is in the area. I don’t know any Duke’s personally but I do know there is only one of note around these parts and that’s the Duke of Marlborough of Blenheim Palace fame – Jamie Blandford as was. Enough said and my starter arrives. The American leaves – his chauffeur is outside luckily as he has been trying out the Malts and my first course arrives.
The food at The Mason’s Arms is a proverbial feast for the eyes. Beautifully presented with herbs from the kitchen garden, meat sourced locally etc. My starter did not disappoint although I could not get visability o the black pudding but I am sure it was there! The main of rump was perfectly medium done and the flavour not spoiled by the burnt taint of a flame grill as so many steaks are these days. The piste de resistance though was the desert. This is not something I would usually order as I am usually too full but my love of Sicilian blood oranges got the better of me…. these oranges develop their distinct colour/flavour as a result of the change of temperatures which can drop to freezing on the slopes around the volcano of Mount Etna even in summer.
The eatery and hotel in East Leigh is the fourth venture for owners Justin and Charlotte Salisbury who launched their brand Artist Residence in 2008 in rather more racy places such as Brighton, Penzance and London’s Pimlico with another planned for Bristol this year.
The reason the food is so good at the Mason’s is down to chef Leon Smith who has a Michelin-starred background including working for Tom Aikens and Wild Honey in London and the Pony & Trap in Bristol. He is passionate about using the freshest locally sourced ingredients. Many of the vegetables in particular come from the pub’s kitchen garden
All in all, it was a perfect lunch with a warm welcome, great food and some entertainment for a lone but not lonely eater. Sadly, I was not able to stay as all the bedrooms were booked!
Mason’s Arms, Station Road, South Leigh, Oxfordshire OX29 6XN
T: 01993 656238
Rooms: Doubles from £130, B&B
Parking: on site car park, free of charge
Pets: £20 charge per dog, per night. Dog bowl and treats included