LCT Article July 2009
By: Maggie Behringer 06/25/2009
Last November, Washington resident John Harris stopped for a burger at the Marble Dale Pub. On the way back to his car after the meal, he happened upon a breathtaking scene-the Aspetuck River picturesquely flowing a few feet behind the restaurant, downstream from a terraced waterfall, though it was a bit overgrown.
"What a beautiful resource," he thought, eying the waterfall. "If I could only open up that view."
Now, he's done just that. Mr. Harris bought the property from retiring owners Aura Showah and Doug Waterbury and spent six months transforming the landmark neighborhood eatery. The White Horse Country Pub planned to open the last weekend in June.
"It's really a village gathering space," the new owner said. "That's what a pub should be."
A true Englishman in the best sense, Mr. Harris hails from London. He traveled the world while working in the hotel business, primarily in Kenya, Bermuda and the Middle East, before arriving in America 25 years ago. He and his wife, Lisa, a movie producer, have owned restaurants and pubs in New York City, London and Westport.
Immensely creative people, they chose not to relegate themselves to the role of silent financial backers. The design for both the menu and decor at The White Horse benefited from their influence. Mr. Harris' skills as a builder and developer came in handy for the complete inside-out renovations, which stripped the existing structure to the dirt and studs. He brought in local artisans and a slew of carpenters from Greenwich. Still, the process veered slightly from the original vision.
"You work in harmony with the building and let the building tell you what it wants to be," Mr. Harris explained of the organic approach to construction.
As it happened, the building wanted to be a dark wood beauty cast almost entirely in the mold of a 19th-century ale house somewhere around North London. Gas lighting throws a soft glow on green awnings and the artisan windows are cut into prisms with delicate green details.
The main heavy wooden door, meanwhile, opens into a foyer leading to the dining room on the left and the pub off to the right. The former is mix of tables and alcove like booths with a patio section for the warmer months. The lush river greenery, seen through a wall of tall windows, provides a striking backdrop.
In the pub, Edison bulbs maintain the old-world ambiance. The mahogany wraparound bar, complete with copper accents, stretches out under a copper ceiling. The booth and table arrangement matches that in the dining room, as does the outdoor seating section in the pub's deck. The ceiling's grayish wooden beams were pulled out of a barn in Vermont.
The ability to cleverly incorporate unusual pieces of the past is a fundamental design principle at The White Horse. In defining their restaurant as an old English tavern, Mr. and Mrs. Harris not only invoked the general look of the 19th century, but also imported the actual history of that time and earlier with a few modern exceptions. Mrs. Harris has termed the style as "Hard Rock Caf meets the British Museum."
A sign depicting the establishment's namesake hangs over the pub's fireplace, dating back to 1840 when it marked the original White Horse pub in Mayfair, London. Next to it hangs a framed sketch of William Shakespeare and an official sealed letter in the hand of William Clopton, the bard's longtime friend and next door neighbor in Stratford upon Avon.
Clopton descended from one of England's noble, and tragic, families. Shakespeare is said to have based two heartbreaking heroines, Ophelia and Juliet, on Clopton family misfortunes. Placed inconspicuously near the pub door is a 1488 castle land deed from Northern France penned in old French. Also unassumingly settled in the middle of the pub's tables is a 16th-century tavern table, which has been in continuous use since its first placement in a castle.
Off to the side of the room is a framed guitar, signed by all four members of the Rolling Stones, and resting above the bar on a pedestal of sorts is a 1920, cherry red Indian Scout motorcycle. The model represents the first year of production of a bike, which, under the persistent tinkering of a man named Burt Munroe, broke the land speed record at 190 mph in 1967.
The crown jewel of the White Horse's collection hangs in the dining room and required the British government's permission to reach its present location. It's a 1597 manuscript written by Queen Elizabeth 1 and contains her Great Seal, one of only a handful preserved today. The stamp features a carving of the monarch in full regal costume as seen in the picture hanging beside the artifact. Mr. Harris also granted scholarship rights to the British Museum, meaning that Litchfield County residents might find themselves rubbing elbows with British historians at the bar.
Despite the daunting amount of history packed into the building, The White Horse retains its first impression as a welcoming and unpretentious institution.
"If this is the village living room, you've got to feel comfortable enough to come back," Mr. Harris said.
The provisions do much to remind the palate of home- cooked fare. Mr. and Mrs. Harris collaborated with chef Fabrice Denis for the final menu. Born into a kitchenfriendly family-his father headed a catering business and his mother served as a personal chef to Parisian aristocrats-Mr. Denis' professional trajectory has much in common with Mr. Harris'. After studying in Paris, the chef traveled through Europe and worked in pubs and restaurants before relocating to New York City to attend the French Culinary Institute. Mr. Denis owned a successful Fairfield eatery, Viol, for 14 years previous to his post at The White Horse.
"He totally got the idea of what I was trying to do: good, affordable, honest food," Mr. Harris explained.
The menu blends the best of both worlds, or, more precisely, both countries, drawing from the traditions of both New England with seafood classics and English pub cuisine with bangers and mash, Guinness beef stew and shepherd's pie and topped off with American bar standards such as nachos and chicken wings.
Mr. Denis' talented guidance enriches the dishes with subtle and delicious touches like the baked montrachet on the warm goat cheese salad or the champagne and sweet orange with the salmon en papillote. The kitchen uses local ingredients whenever possible. The prized recipe is the house signature burger, a mixture of black angus sirloin, brisket and short rib paired with Sage Derby blue cheese and Applewood smoked bacon.
"We're going to get known for that," Mr. Harris said with a sly smile.
Prices range from $4.75 to $12.75 for salads and appetizers, $6.50 to $13.50 for sandwiches and burgers and $13.75 to $18.75 for entrees. The lunch and dinner menus have identical price points and a kids menu is available. The bar offers an agreeable stock of draught and bottle beers, including Old Speckled Hen, as well as wine and cocktails.
The renovations, complete with the buzz of construction and daily coming and going of work trucks, attracted a good deal of attention from locals and those passing on Route 202. Curious faces would pop in and receive a genial greeting from the new proprietor, setting the hospitable tone even before the restaurant opened. Perhaps the house burger will become a standout, but it seems more likely that the White Horse's calling card will emerge in its role as the area's dinner table, town hall, watering hole all in one.
For more information, visit the Web site at www.whitehorsecountrypub.com. The restaurant is open seven days a week for lunch and dinner from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., with the bar open until closing and a Sunday brunch from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Litchfield County Times 2009