While London, England, was on almost full lockdown at the end of last year, preventing folks from leaving the city and heading off to a country pub for a typical Sunday pub lunch, the irony was not lost on me that, here in New York I was able to do exactly that.
Not that there is any room for complacency with Covid, but we take our pleasures where we can safely find them. The pub in question, The White Horse Country Pub & Restaurant is in the village of Marbledale in the southwest corner of the Litchfield Hills, a picturesque pocket made even more popular (and house prices even more astronomical) on account of nearby Washington, Connecticut, being the setting for the Netflix series “The Gilmore Girls.” The pub was established by Brit John Harris and wife Lisa 11 years ago, but you’d think from its interior, complete with beams, nooks and fireplaces, that it had been here for a century at least. It’s also as near to a British country pub as you’re likely to find anywhere east of Cornwall, consistently winning all manner of awards for its upscale pub food and charming ambiance.
A third reason its legions of fans love The White Horse is for its memorabilia, a collection of art and artifacts as random as it is riveting. A Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Christmas card might jockey for position with a photograph of Winston Churchill, signed by his daughter, Sarah, while a swatch of Martha Washington’s wedding dress competes for wall space with a 20 shilling note, dating from 1773, “from the Great British Colony of Connecticut.” Seals, deeds and proclamations from parliament act as wallpaper. A Rolling Stones guitar, meanwhile hangs just by the deck doors and, behind the bar, a 1920s Indian Scout motorbike is suspended in all its glory. Think Mumbai’s Chor Bazaar (Thieves’ Market) married with London’s Portobello Road, with a touch of Brooklyn’s Flea market thrown into the mix.
A seasoned restaurateur who has also worked in the construction industry, Harris has the instincts of a marketing man, so complete is The White Horse’s devotion to branding. Apart from the pub sign itself — an 1840 original that once hung outside a pub of the same name in Mayfair, London — the current White Horse motif abounds. It is printed on the paper bands that ring the real cloth napkins, seared onto hamburger buns, even sculpted in pastry and standing proud on top of the pub’s signature chicken pot pie, proud as a…well, as a white horse.
The food’s the thing
Oh, the pot pie. Even without its flowery menu description, this pie’s a winner. Cubed chicken and vegetables luxuriate in a cream sauce prinked with Chardonnay, all cohabiting amicably under the lightest pastry crust. Whether pot pies really were “an important element of a royal chef’s repertoire,” or whether this one “would definitely win the King’s favor,” is anybody’s guess, but nobody’s likely to mind the tongue-in-cheek prose, nor Harris hamming it up for all it’s worth.
The White Horse bucks two principles for success. In the first, it is often said in the trade that when a restaurant has a view, the quality of the food will always play second fiddle to the outlook. Yet, at The White Horse, which sits dreamily on the banks of the fast-flowing East Aspetuck River, the food is never compromised.
The second standard it breaks is that the quality of the food is in inverse proportion to the length of the menu, because while the menu here is a blockbuster bill of fare, dish after mouth-watering dish presented in striking neo-Gothic font on four sides of heavy, crisp white cartridge paper, the caliber of the cooking stays consistently high. Like all good British pub menus, The White Horse cherry-picks (I hesitate to say “appropriates”) the very best dishes from around the globe.
At lunch there are croque messieurs from France, Mexican nachos and quesadillas, lamb koftas and chicken wraps with a nod to the British Raj and a fantastic Shrimp Louie, the classic West Coast salad of shrimp, lettuce, egg and tomato in a tangy, paprika-primped Thousand Island dressing. At both lunch and dinner there’s a glorious version of chicken tikka masala, the mild chicken curry which is held — not entirely jokingly — to be Britain’s national dish. There are burgers galore, and they are excellent, and seafood abounds. Mussels are served either à la marinière, or Belgian-style, with a side of fries; coquilles Saint-Jacques (scallops) come with their requisite mashed potatoes; and lobster pie is an exuberant dish of Maine lobster in a spirited sherry sauce. Naturally, there is fish and chips, three generous tranches of big-flaked, wild-caught cod, fried to a golden tan, served with regular and sweet potato fries and good tartar sauce. Malt vinegar on the fries — a British peculiarity, some would say perversity — is optional.
And hats off to The White Horse, too, for including the pot pie in a miniature portion on their children’s menu, a welcome addition to the standard burger or mac ’n’ cheese kiddie fare.
Drinking, naturally, is a serious business. There is English cider and English and Irish ales, while closer to home you’ll find Naughty Nurse, a wonderfully prurient-sounding English-style bitter from the City Steam Brewery Café in Hartford, Connecticut. A pre-mixed bloody Mary, a little heavy on the horseradish, comes with a twist of both lemon and lime as well as two fat olives, which is certainly keeping all bases covered. As for the wine list, it embraces the Old and New Worlds and wines either by the bottle or by the glass are sympathetically marked-up. I couldn’t help thinking, though, that The White Horse would be the perfect place to showcase some of the wonderful sparklers now coming out of southern England, wines like Nyetimber, Gusbourne and Wiston, all of which repeatedly take the top gongs at international wine awards, often beating their more established Champagne counterparts from France. What say you, Mr. Harris?
Service, from the time of making a phone reservation to the cheery farewell at the end of lunch or dinner, is thoroughly helpful and good-natured. Yes, our server did need reminding about a couple of items and it can be tricky to attract a staffer’s attention during a busy service if you are seated at a corner table, but it seems almost churlish to mention these blips in the context of the bigger, convivial picture.
Following Covid-19 protocols that go above and beyond the state’s requirements, The White Horse has been one of the lucky ones — a restaurant that looks likely to survive the pandemic. Not all have been so fortunate. As the mythological symbol of England, a white horse is also considered a harbinger of good fortune and prosperity. Let’s hope it’s an omen not just for itself but for others too, and for better times to come in 2021.
For reservations and more, visit whitehorsecountrypub.com.