Driving down a quiet country lane off the A40 one dark and rainy October evening I arrived in the unassuming village of South Leigh. The warm lights of Mr Hanbury’s Mason Arms glowed through the windows as I pulled into the car park. Part of the Artist Residence – an eccentric bunch of fun and friendly places to eat, sleep and drink – this is one of Oxfordshire’s newest foodie hotspots and has a heart-warming back story.
With the property on the market and looking likely to be snapped up by developers, the villagers grouped together to raise funds to buy it. Sadly, they couldn’t raise enough but, Justin, co-owner of Artist Residence, who has a passion for finding old buildings and bringing out their best potential, heard about this and stepped in, securing it for his next project. The villagers were delighted that their local had been saved.
Beginning as a family run B&B in Brighton in 2006, Justin and Charlie wanted to improve their business. Inspired by the Brighton art scene they invited artists to come and decorate the hotel in return for board and this saw the start of the Artist Residence. Mr Hanbury’s is the 4th place to open as part of the collection and is still very much the heart of this village community. There are regular events for the locals such as live music and the popular pub quiz.
From the moment you step through the door that warm glow from the lights is echoed in the friendly greeting from co-owner (and sister to Justin), Lavender and bar manager Fiona. The bar area offers a cosy feel and the décor is a mixture of styles, with quirky installations (light up crucifix anyone?) and vintage photos. Even the toilets are worth a visit, with censored Government letters on the wall providing amusing reading! Walk through to the small restaurant area (with second bar) and it’s clear to see a lot of thought has gone into the refurbishment of this place. It oozes Cotswold style without being pretentious.
The menu has been designed by head chef Leon Smith, who loves creating unique dishes inspired by country living and using ingredients people wouldn’t traditionally have in their cupboards. Michelin-trained, Leon gained his extensive experience working as sous chef in the Michelin-starred Pony & Trap (Bristol) and Royal Oak (Paley Street). On his reasons for joining the Artist Residence family, Leon says, “I felt that I was ready to step up and make a name for myself, I want to express my ideas.”
Our feast began with the parsley root soup and ale bread along with the whipped cod’s roe and smoked chilli flakes. The presentation of these dishes was impeccable. The soup was deliciously creamy, thick and smooth with a rich flavour – slightly peppery in taste with a delicate sweetness. The cod’s roe was an abundance of flavour, rich smokiness to start, finished with a cheeky little kick of chilli.
Starters swiftly polished off, we opted for the venison haunch, roasted parsley root, cavolo nero and juniper crust, and on recommendation from Fiona, the smoked brisket, mash, caramelised onions and kale. Wow. There’s almost not any more to say! The venison was beautifully pink and tender. The brisket so perfectly cooked it was like cutting through butter with a hot knife.
All the produce used by Leon and his sous chef, Gavin, is sourced from within 25 miles of the restaurant. Leon has also spent his time cultivating a vegetable patch and herb garden, “I take pride in what I produce, which includes building up the vegetable patches. It’s a nice feeling having created that and watching it flourish.” Even the villagers get involved as many of the vegetables also come from their gardens. For me that’s one of the fantastic things about this place – the involvement of the locals, it really makes for such a unique experience.
When it came to dessert the decision process was just too tough! So, we took one for the team and sampled not one, but three desserts. Not something I would normally order, the sticky toffee pudding with stout butterscotch sauce and clotted cream definitely converted me. The sponge was light and moist with the butterscotch sauce adding the depth of flavour. Just as the name suggests, it’s a delightful balance of sweet, sticky toffee-ness!
And what is a dessert menu without some chocolatey goodness? Here, this comes in the form of the most decadent brownie I have ever had the pleasure of tasting! The Valrhona chocolate brownie with coffee, Chantilly and hazelnuts has a texture that is closer to a ganache than a traditional brownie with all the richness you’d expect from a chocolate dessert. A definite winner in my eyes!
Finally, we tucked into the South Leigh cheesecake. This mango and passionfruit cheesecake with toasted nuts and kaffir lime puree is zesty and zingy. A slightly lighter option than the other desserts and more refreshing on the palate. I’m a sucker for a good cheesecake too so you can see how the dessert decision was so hard.
Summing up his experience at Mr Hanbury’s Mason Arms so far, Leon says “It’s been, and is going to continue to be, a lot of hard work, but producing my own unique dishes for people to enjoy is what makes it all worth the effort for me.” Leon’s passion for producing excellent food is clear to see and really comes through in his dishes. This, along with Lavender and Fiona’s love for providing an outstanding experience for all their guests makes a visit to Mr Hanbury’s an absolute must.