The congenial general manager, Alex, carries out the guided tour of Artist Residence Oxfordshire that we receive upon arrival. “Here’s the helipad,” he says, gesturing to a white ‘H’ in a vacant field to the rear of the property. “Come here for the sunset – it’s incredible.”
The tour carried out by our friendly host is delivered with a comfortable professionalism that shows just how much this GM cares about the site he is in charge of. He has big plans for another disused field, which will eventually be occupied by a selection of glamping tipis. We’re shown the Shepherd’s Hut accommodation (a glamorous trailer that has been transformed into a ‘cosy bolthole, perfect for two’), which sits behind the venue’s herb garden. Alex doesn’t show off the homegrown produce, deeming it the norm; an ubiquitous addition that shouldn’t be used for USP marketing in this day and age. “A bit like free Wi-Fi,” he says with a chuckle. The man has a point.
The highlight of the tour though is when we’re shown the out-of-action security alarm, which sits above the front door on the outside of the building. The story goes that the eccentric former landlord of the pub became frustrated when he couldn’t figure out how to silence the shrill siren, so solved the problem with his shotgun. The cartridge-filled carcass is just one of the remaining tributes to the history and heritage of the building.
There are modern additions too, of course, which is what owners Justin and Charlotte Salisbury are so proficient at delivering. This is the fourth ‘Artist Residence’ site, with the other three situated in Brighton, Penzance and Pimlico in London. Bristol is on the way later this year. The Mason Arms in Oxfordshire was the couple’s first foray into the countryside, but you really wouldn’t know it – although eccentricities lie around every corner, there’s an apposite symbiosis between the classic country pub foundations and the quirky art installations scattered throughout. A provocative neon sign asking ‘What did I do last night?’ creates a spirited atmosphere one wouldn’t really associate with a pub dining room so close to the Cotswolds. I liked it – it effortlessly gives the space a different lease of life.
The splendid summer afternoon was quickly whiled away with pints of Freedom Four lager from Staffordshire’s Freedom Brewery, glasses of Vale do Homem – a 2015 Portuguese rosé – and multiple games of table-tennis that gradually deteriorated in quality. As we arrived in that late afternoon limbo between lunch and dinner, we decided to snack on a couple of The Mason Arms’ starters. Isle of Wight tomatoes with whipped curd (£7.50) burst with a flavour us Londoners who shop at Sainsbury’s don’t get to experience very often. The maple whiskey-cured salmon with caviar, pickled cucumber and horseradish (£8) was so accomplished that it was ordered again as a dinner starter just a few hours later.
After settling into the Stable Suite, our room for the evening (please check out the rooms on their website – they are all things of boutique beauty), we returned to the intimate setting of The Mason Arms dining room. I felt a little sorry for our waiter, who, judging by the two telephones he had strapped to his belt, could have done with an extra pair of hands during this summer service. But he wasn’t to be deterred – we received nothing but enthusiastic and cheery service throughout our stay.
As mentioned, the whiskey salmon was ordered and enjoyed once again, alongside an alluring pea and broad bead risotto (£7.50). The addition of Old Winchester cheese in place of something Italian was a nice touch, as were the pickled shallots, which delicately cut through the depth of the dish with a vinegary sharpness. You could certainly take this on as a main course. As it was a hot evening, many surrounding tables were enjoying the tomato and roasted red pepper gazpacho, which is served with a cucumber sorbet and candied pine nuts (£6.50).
The main courses are split in two, as a way of separating the options cooked on the pub’s Robata grill. From the Robata section you can choose from the staple beef burger (£15), an 8oz Blythburgh pork chop (£18) or the 10oz flat iron steak (£23). By recommendation from our waiter, I plump for the latter, which is served alongside triple-cooked chips and some watercress. It’s a chunky specimen, which holds the flavours from the Robata nicely – when well-seasoned and seared properly, there’s not much else that needs doing to this cut. We also try the Pollock, which comes with potato, pea, crayfish and a distinguished beer vinegar that undoubtedly makes the dish (£17). If you’ve got anything left, while the local cheeses or strawberries and cream may tempt you, you’d be a flat-ironed fool not to order the pecan fudge brownie, salted bourbon granola and vanilla ice cream (£7).
What the Salisburys are doing with the Artist Residence business is impressive. While some operators may question the logic and practicality of having four/five businesses situated so far apart, it’s the location of each site that the couple builds the character and offer upon. The incredible bedrooms and the art that adorns each venue is the signature style of the group, but menus and finishing touches are all unique to each operation. The Mason Arms, in its quintessential Oxfordshire location, has allowed the couple to create yet another bespoke outlet that’s indicative of their trademark brand, which can only encourage customers to want to visit all of the sites in the portfolio. We await Bristol with baited breath.