The White Horse in Hampstead
Sitting in Hampstead’s The White Horse feels somewhat like being in an olden day ocean liner. Bottles of spirits glow from the ornate wooden bar, while chandeliers gleam beneath the high, tiled ceiling and tropical birds flirt on the Victorian-style wallpaper. Cutlery comes rolled in a thick fabric napkin tied with twine, and the scent of lilies hangs in the air. With its high ceilings and open layout, the overwhelming first impression of The White Horse is of space and light – attributes that seem to have directly inspired the evening menu. Rather than segregating starters, mains and desserts, staff opted instead for a more open selection grouped into six categories: meat, fish/shellfish, deli, starch/grain, green, and sweet/cheese. Customers can order as much or as little as they fancy, whether it’s bar snacks for one or (like us) something a little more banquet-like.
The best thing about a menu like this is that you can orchestrate your own flavours. We started with a tangle of marinated sweet green chillies (betraying just the tiniest hint of warmth) paired with the Heritage tomato salad: an attractive array of tomato chunks strewn with parsley, dill, finely sliced spanish onion and baby capers, all dressed in a delicate vinaigrette. The two were perfect complements, and a tantalising start to the meal.
Despite the temptations of foie gras and gingerbread or dripping chips, we opted next for a pescetarian selection of smoked sardines with horseradish mayo, spring greens with mustard and shallot, potted shrimp and toast, a greek salad, and the truffled mushrooms on toast. Each dish was immaculately presented on small wooden cheeseboards, and the quality of the food did not disappoint. Tiny, plump shrimp nestled under a layer of butter arrived in their own jar beside a stack of mini toast pieces. The shrimp was tender and meaty, the buttery richness tempered by the dry crunch of the toast. The spring greens provided a nice contrast, with subtle mustard strains and strands of nearly caramelised shallot tossed through the al dente leaves. The butterflied sardines were intense and smoky, almost but not quite overwhelming the fresh horseradish mayo on the side.
For all its apparent simplicity, Greek salad seems to be one of the trickiest dishes to do really well. The White Horse version includes olives, feta chunks, cucumber, tomato, Spanish onion and leaves, with more of that excellent vinaigrette. While the olives and feta were delicious, there weren’t quite enough neutral flavours to sustain their saltiness, and we ended up abandoning it once the last piece of cucumber was gone.
The truffled mushrooms on toast, however, were quite a different matter. A mix of silken, spongy and delicately chewy wild mushrooms was served tumbling over a stack of mini toast slices. The balance of flavours and textures was absolutely spot-on, and it was all I could do to get a few mouthfuls in before my companion ate it all. It was the sort of dish you’d come back to the same pub night after night for – and I’m very pleased to report that it’s also offered on the lunch menu!
Next we tackled the cheese plate, a generous trio served with a wedge of quince paste, an assortment of crackers, and a small bunch of red grapes. The night’s selection comprised a mature Ojos del Guadiana manchego, a lighter, airy manouri and a rich smooth cheddar, each offsetting the others beautifully.
Too full to contemplate separate sweets, we decided to share the Eton Mess. A glorious muddle of broken meringue and raspberries dressed with strawberries, cream and berry coulis soon arrived, and was promptly demolished. Sweet, pillowy meringue pieces complemented the tartness of the raspberries, and there was just enough cream to pull the whole dish together without weighing it down. It was the closest I’ve ever come to eating a cloud.
Despite the lofty ceilings and opulent surrounds, The White Horse has retained much of the charm of a local pub. Two men played Scrabble behind us for most of our meal, while other clientele ranged from businessmen to locals out for a cheery pint. Service is relaxed and friendly, and the menu is flexible enough to suit almost any budget. The wine list is brief and well considered with a healthy range of spirits behind the bar. There is also a short cocktail menu inspired by the English summer. And while I would not hesitate to recommend anything at all from such a thoughtful and stylishly executed menu, I would particularly, especially urge you not to miss out on the truffled mushrooms.
White Horse: 46/60
To book a table at The White Horse call 020 7485 2112.