PASSPORT MAGAZINE "THE PERFECT PUB"
Those who like to eat well are fickle when it comes to favorite haunts, what works and why. Actually, fickle is the wrong word. Discerning isn't quite right either. It's more of a personal preference thing, the same way love is.
One person's stunning beauty - the equivalent of a showoff five-star restaurant-is a bit garish to another person of equal taste, someone who finds alignment in a collection of slightly less lavish attributes.
Maybe all of that is a way of saying that in a judgment formula that weighs not only cuisine but comfort, price point, approachability, personality, portions and libations, one of the most trustworthy genres that results is a smartly run, stylish and high-achieving pub.
Something of a trend in England, such establishments have been labeled gastropubs, which signifies places that have elevated the charming egalitarian qualities of the classic neighborhood or country pub to a higher plane by adding a noted chef, sophisticated cuisine and a vibe and decor to match.
John Harris, who, with his wife, Lisa, owns The White Horse, A Country Pub & Restaurant, in the Marbledale section of Washington, Conn. doesn't like the term gastropub. It's a bit of a put-on to him.
Instead, he prefers to think of the establishment he launched a little less than two years ago as a "good comfortable place for the neighborhood....like your own living room, a communal center with high-end food."
Mr. Harris, an Englishman who was previously in poperty development and had ownership experience in the dining arena, comes across as both poud and modest; his description of The White Horse, while accurate, is an under-sell.
From the bones of the former Marbledale Pub, a popular but not upscale fixture, the renovation undertaken by the Harrises produced an attractive, charming place that is distinguished by a distinctive personality. Details like the heavy wooden entry door, working fireplaces and wooden beams from a barn in Vermont create the right feel, but the genius touch behind the decor lies in the historic artifacts.
Given pride of place behind the bar is a shiny red Indian Scout motorcycle from 1920, the first production year, and the pub room - there's also a separate dining room - features a 16th-century tavern table from a royal castle that has been in continuous use for more than 400 years.
Above the pub room's fireplace is an 1840 pub sign from the original White Horse Pub in Mayfair, London, and one of the most recent additions, from 1675, is a copy of the first English newspaper, the London Gazette, whose first advertisement was for a lost dog
All of that, and more, provides a cozy setting in which to showcase the food created by The White Horse's French chef, Fabrice Denis, and his team. Much of it is simple and hearty, but abundantly flavorful, well-executed and priced kindly.
Mr. Harris is right when he says there are no "dogs" on the menu; everything is so good and tempting that it's difficult to choose. An establishment that serves Guinness, Samuel Smith Pale Ale and other beers and ales emphasizes its signature burgers - among them a Kobe burger on a toasted buttered brioche roll served with the guest's choice of trimmings: apple wood smoked bacon, caramelized onions, sauteed wild mushrooms and charred poblano chilies ($13.50)
About the House Signature Burger ($11.75), The menu says, "Extravagant, succulent and juicy, a really most excellent burger. Utilizing 1/2 lb. of our exclusive lend of black angus sirloin, brisket and short rib, with apple wood smoked bacon, caramelized onions, romaine leaf, tomato, and our special seasoned sage derby blue cheese sauce on a toasted buttered brioche.
A pint of domestic draft is $1, with a house signature burger, at the bar."
The burgers are juicy and delicious, but so is the classic steakhouse shepherd's pie ($14.75), and the rich and decadent (think bacon) Guinness beef stew ($17.50). The chicken pot pie ($16.75), meanwhile, not only tastes great but it's also a work of art, served with a puff pastry white horse riding atop the crust.
The slow-braised lamb shank ($18.75) is a hearty choice for a chilly evening, and the fish and chips ($14.50) is authentic, ample and delicate at the same time. The pub has a devoted following for its salmon en papillote, featuring fresh fish baked in parchment with champagne, aomatic herbs, sweet orange and mixed vegetables on a bed of couscous (18.50), and the prime rib is so good it sells out every time it's on the menu.
Lately, the pub has also been offering beef Wellington on the weekends and lobster paella, dishes that can be complemented with a fine ale or any number of nice wine selections.
The White Horse keeps the momentum going with dessert ($6 to $8), which includes bourbon bread pudding, English toffee pecan pie and many others.
It's no wonder that, by Mr. Harris' estimate, the pub has served 150,000 meals in a year and a half - and it also boasts another badge of superior quality, seeing the same faces at the tables over and over again. A nice comfortable place for the neighborhood ? The White Horse is that and more.