White Horse Pub proves that there's nothing bland about British cuisine 

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Photo by Angela C. Bond

If I were planning to open a British-style pub in the metro, I'm not sure I'd choose a location on the periphery of Gladstone — the Clay County hamlet famous for In-A-Tub, Hayes Hamburgers and Chili, and the China One Buffet.

Then again, legendary statesman William Ewart Gladstone, who served four terms as British prime minister during the Victorian era, offers a modest link to the United Kingdom. If that historical reference isn't enough, there's the life-size fiberglass statue of a traditional Coldstream Guard (in red tunic and tall fur cap) standing at attention at the entrance to the two-month-old White Horse Pub. The imposing figure adds unexpected drama to a place that could otherwise pass as a modest neighborhood restaurant anywhere in the United States.

The dining-room walls — lined with framed photos and artistic renderings of Twiggy, the Beatles, Rowan Atkinson, Dudley Moore and HRH Elizabeth II (of course) — make the point with slightly more subtlety.

You have to expect a certain amount of theatricality here; the pub's owner, Toby Corder, was raised in London, the son of popular BBC soap opera actress Daphne Green. (She had a long run on the Emmerdale TV serial.)

Corder is a veteran of corporate restaurant chains (including Waffle House and TGI Friday's). He met his future wife when they were working at a summer camp. "My wife was originally from Kansas City, Kansas," Corder says. "And when we had an opportunity to move here, we did."

English cooking is often dismissed as one of the lesser European cuisines, but that notion raises hackles with Corder, who blames the food rationing that accompanied World War I and World War II for the bland British diet.

"When I was growing up in London, I passed six pubs, one Chinese take-away, one Greek café and an Indian restaurant every day," he says, "and the food was delicious in all of them."

Corder's White Horse Pub offers a modest British culinary repertoire — fish and chips, bangers and mash, shepherd's pie — and at least two dishes inspired by its former colony India, such as a hearty bowl of chicken tikka masala and, on the starter list, a tandoori chicken quesadilla (topped with mozzarella for true international flair).

But the White Horse, which bills itself as "a little spot of Britain without crossing the pond," doesn't pretend to be too grandly international. The menu also offers crispy fried chicken wings (available in Buffalo sauce or a tandoori version); a quintet of burgers (beef, turkey, chicken, lamb or nonmeat); salads; and a British breakfast, called "The Full Monty" here, featuring two eggs, a banger, British bacon, Heinz baked beans and a grilled tomato slice.

"It's especially popular with expats in the community," Corder says of the Full Monty. "To be honest, I don't think that Heinz beans are very good, but we have customers devoted to them. It's a sentimental thing."

You can't help but like this joint, even if the clientele is culled mostly from the immediate neighborhood and not, sadly, from Heathrow Airport. Corder's fish and chips are very tasty, but they would be even more intriguing if Maggie Smith and Sir Ian McKellen were sitting at the next table, nibbling on Scotch eggs and bad-mouthing Harry Potter scripts.

Corder says he was warned that Northlanders wouldn't order lamb, but he says he's selling a lot of it. If you've tasted the White Horse Pub's excellent shepherd's pie, a casserole of fragrant ground lamb, vegetables and a crust of fluffy real mashers, you can understand why lamb would be a hit here. The lamb burger is also excellent.

Corder's banger sausages and mashed potatoes are also outrageously good. "My sausages are made from free-range pigs," Corder boasts, "made to my specifications."

They are very good plump sausages, snuggled under a blanket of shiny brown gravy.

The White Horse Pub's dessert list isn't elaborate. And because I'm starting to look like a free-range pig myself these days, I was wary of ordering anything from it. But Corder is a slick talker, and before I knew it, I was spooning up an excellent sticky toffee bread pudding — pillowy soft and not too sweet — and the baked-apple fruit crumble served with a warm house-made custard that was as pretty as it was tasty: the Keira Knightley of baked sweets.

The service is quick and attentive. (It helps that Corder's son, Toby Jr., is one of the waiters and watches over the dining room with an eagle eye.) And the prices are almost scandalously inexpensive. None of the entrees costs more than $10.

There aren't many British-style restaurants in the metro, but the White Horse Pub is appealing enough to "cross the pond" — or, in this case, the Missouri River. Be on your best behavior, though. I'm still not sure that the stern-looking Coldstream Guard isn't really watching.

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