Published: March 8th, 2013 by Christopher Brooks Its position along the Aspetuck River on a remote stretch of Route 202 in Marbledale, Conn., a few miles north of New Milford, makes the White Horse very much a country pub. With a menu with choices as varied as pad Thai salad, quesadillas, Persian lamb and coq au vin, the question is - which country? Clues abound: leaded windows, exposed beams, and an extensive collection of Anglophilic paraphernalia (Elizabethan relics, antique furnishings) all point to England. Most of those Old World accouterments are in the pub half of the establishment, where an apple-red motorcycle is mounted behind the bar, a 16th-century refectory table rests by the fireplace and a carriage lantern and other faux-gas lights hang from the ceiling. The more formal dining room, decorated with a wrought iron chandelier, Stubbs-like oils and equine weather vanes, seems almost antiseptic by comparison.
"We're really a restaurant disguised as a pub," said John Harris, a British expatriate who with his wife, Lisa, opened the White Horse in 2009. Indeed, with 10 salads, 9 burgers and nearly 30 appetizers and entrees, the White Horse juggles more ingredients and recipes than many other such places. Successfully so, often enough. The British Raj chicken salad, for instance, combines simplicity with flair. Simplicity in the Madras curry-coated chicken meat, cubed and served over mixed greens. Flair in how just enough almond slivers, golden raisins, dried cranberries and a smidgen of apricots contribute pizazz to the curry flavor, while mitigating its peppery edge. Similar poise is reflected in a spinach-artichoke dip, its cheesy, spinachy nature made more complex by undertones of not-quite-puréed artichoke hearts, as well as of white wine and garlic. Served with a small galvanized bucket of corn chips, this starter is best split among three or four. Other appetizers that are great for sharing include coconut shrimp and a crock of mussels. Five shrimp, fried golden brown and studded with quills of coconut, were hooked over the rim of a glass canning jar, filled with leaves of romaine. Despite that odd presentation, I enjoyed the shrimp, although the piña colada dipping sauce might be a tad sweet for some. Not so the mussels broth, a marriage of white wine, garlic, shallots and fresh basil that is so savory as to almost outshine the succulent mussels. A crock of sirloin chili (listed under soups), topped with melted cheese, was also quite pleasing, its meaty ground-beef flavor seasoned with cumin and a hint of ale.
Disappointments among entrees were largely limited to a pecan-crusted pork tenderloin. The house burger, a half-pound patty (on a lovely brioche bun), was unevenly cooked, while, more seriously, the tenderloin was sheathed in bread crumbs - with surprisingly few crushed pecans - and deep-fried to an oily sheen. Persian lamb kofta was initially a letdown, too, only because the menu failed to mention that the lamb was ground instead of cubed. Aromatic spicing (cumin, garlic, mint and more) elevated the grilled meat, tomatoes, peppers and onions to higher plane. Most other entrees happily exceeded expectations. In coq au vin, two tender chicken legs were nicely marinated in red wine, garlic and thyme, augmented by pearl onions, mushrooms and lardon, then draped in a luscious, cognac-infused reduction. The mashed potato crust of a first-rate shepherd's pie was artistically ruffled and expertly gratinéed. Underneath, a medley of ground sirloin, carrots, peas and onions, had been simmered in a flavorful gravy. The almond pesto coating a slow-roasted salmon special proved to be more coriander seeds than nuts. That innovation succeeded, however, because of the forceful presence of freshly pulsed basil. And the fish, wonderfully flaky and topped with lemony chunks of avocado, was perfectly cooked. So, too, was an order of prime rib, served only on weekends. The portion of tender beef was more than ample, yet it was nearly eclipsed by a voluminous Yorkshire pudding. Eclectic offerings continue onto an expansive dessert menu that includes a competently prepared crème brûlée, pear belle Hélène (spiked with toasted almonds) and a Belgian chocolate truffle cake. My advice: stick with the hearty British theme and order either the English toffee pecan pie (excellent presence of nuts, with just a hint of the toffee) or buttery-sweet apple crispi crumblee. THE SPACE A two-room restaurant, split between a casual tavern setting and a more formal, 46-seat dining room. Both rooms overlook the Aspetuck River, and offer deck seating in warm weather. Wheelchair-accessible.
THE CROWD Often mobbed with families and groups of friends, drawn by reasonably priced food and a very relaxed atmosphere. THE BAR Convivial setting with stone fireplace, exposed beams, and British bric-a-brac. About 40 seats at tables, and another 13 at the L-shaped bar. Wine by the bottle, from $22; by the glass, from $5. Six beers on tap, including Guinness Stout and Old Speckled Hen, and several more in bottles ($5.50 a pint, from $3.50 to $8.50 a bottle). THE BILL Appetizers, $6.75 to $12.50; salads, $4.75 to $16.75; burgers, $7.75 to $12.50; entrees, $13.75 to $22.50; desserts, $5 to $8. All major credit cards accepted. WHAT WE LIKED Smoked duck winter salad, British Raj chicken salad; sirloin chili, spinach and artichoke dip, coconut shrimp, crock of mussels; steakhouse shepherd's pie, coq au vin, Persian lamb koftas, roasted salmon with almond pesto (a special), prime rib (weekend special); apple crispi crumblee, English toffee pecan pie. IF YOU GO Open daily, from 11 p.m. to 10 p.m. Reservations strongly advised. Parking in front and across the street.