Can a man fall in love with an Indian Scout, a 16th-century queen and a down-at- the-heels tavern near Lake Waramaug? John Harris could and did.
A builder, developer and restaurateur with English roots, Mr. Harris, like the proverbial knight in shining armor, rescued the old Marbledale Pub from incipient dilapidation and totally transformed it into what it is now, a warm, welcoming American pub with an intriguing English accent.
A gleaming Indian Scout motorcycle circa 1920 holds pride of place behind the bar. A portrait of Queen Elizabeth I adorns a wall along with a 1597 manuscript bearing the queens Great Seal. The taproom has a fire- place and the dining room has a river view. Solid oak tables, barn-wood doors and fine Elizabethan antiques belie the fact that there is a state-of-the-art kitchen behind it all. The mood is hale and hearty and so is the food.
The soup of the day is split pea and it's wonderful. The menu is such a fascinating read, we find ourselves reading it aloud. What stand out are the modest prices. "Friday and Saturday will always include: prime rib au jus with Yorkshire pudding, mashed potatoes and vegetables: $19.50:' Is that a deal or what? We've barely begun our meal and already we're so comfortable we're planning to come back for Yorkshire pudding.
Our waitress is competent, genuinely helpful and clearly eager for us to enjoy The White Horse as much as she does. When we wonder how the kitchen gets its flatbread so crisp, she consults the chef and returns with complicated instructions involving a convection oven. Rosalie, the best cook among us, has one. Mission accomplished.
The English theme plays out mostly in terms of entrees-shepherd's pie, fish-and- chips, bangers and mash and the like. When it comes to appetizers, what would the Virgin Queen think of White Horse nachos-a pile of house-made tortilla chips smothered with melted Jack and cheddar cheeses, jalapenos and chili with sides of sour cream and salsa? We think it's the usual mash-up of Latino snack food-enough for all of us for $8.
Personally, I like the creamy, subtly spiced spinach. and avocado dip better. Coconut shrimp are well-made but terribly sweet.
But all that flies out the window when our entrees arrive. Best in Show is "White Horse seafood bake"-dramatic, delicious and stunningly priced at $18.95. Consisting of clams, mussels, sea scallops, shrimp and salmon in a garlic, fennel and white wine broth, it ar- rives, smelling heavenly, in an iron crock. I detect Pernod in the aroma and am delighted to discover the melange does not taste overly of clams or tomato, nor is it muddied with potato. The mussels are small and sweet, the shrimp, correctly tender-crisp. We treasure every drop of the rich, aromatic pale coral sauce. The Tudors never had it so good.
Admittedly, Henry XIII, beefeater that he's purported to have been, might have preferred the 12-ounce Black Angus strip sirloin-if he could have wangled any from our steak maven Bill, who pronounces it top-notch. I appreciate its rich flavor and especially like the taste of char-grilling. No painted-on grill marks here.
Bangers and mash is obligatory on England's pub menus. The White Horse obliges with English farmhouse-style pork sausages served with mashed potatoes and gravy. I've settled on the lamb shank "braised all after- noon' in red and white wine. Lamb shank seems to be everywhere these days, often in the form of skinny little shank ends, neat and petite, but I favor these plump, meaty shanks. Generous portions are the golden rule here. Desserts are many and mellifluously described. According to the menu, "Pear Belle Helen' (aka poire Helene) is "a truly enduring classic, originally created to celebrate Offenbach's opera in 19th century Paris:' What arrives is not a classic but it's terrific, especially if you like vanilla ice cream, a ton of which tops a beautifully poached fresh pear and very good Belgian chocolate sauce. Because the waitress raved about it, we try Bourbon bread pudding "soaked in cask-aged bourbon and served with a delectable bourbon sauce:' Dense, heavy and very sweet, it's also a bit dry. We joke about the menu soaking up all the bourbon, leaving too little for the pudding. Bill ordered the lemon meringue pie, and at the White Horse, it turns out to be a small work of art, a disc of buttery crust topped with a creamy swirl of tangy lemon. English toffee pecan pie delivers exactly what the menu promises-"just the right amount of sweetness:' In addition, the pe- cans are toasted and a jigger of scotch has been added as a finishing touch.
I hope the folks at The White Horse will forgive me for having a bit of sport with the menu's exuberant prose. It's fun to read and informative, and gilds the moment with a glint of royal history.
Thank you, John Harris, and give my regards to Her Majesty.
The White Horse
258 New Milford Tpke.
New Preston. 860/868-1496
Open daily 11 to 10. Wheelchair access. Major credit cards.
Price range: appetizers $4.25 to $9.25. burgers $7.75 to $9.75. entrees $14.50 to $19.50, desserts $5 to $8.