— Originally published in FLL#36 • Written by Sue Barry • Photos by Will Marks
“Confit. That’s French for awesome, right?”
Upon entering the new front door of the Horse Inn gastropub in Lancaster City, Fun 101.3 radio station personality, Michelle Cruz, says to fellow radio partner, Dennis Mitchell, “I have been hearing good things about the newly reopened Horse Inn for months, and now I will get to see if it lives up to the hype.”
The owners are a husband and wife team, culinary-trained Chef Matt and his wife Starla Russell, who bought the restaurant in early 2014. The previous owner took over the Horse Inn when he was 39 years old and ran it for 43 years. The Russells took it as a good omen to take over the Horse Inn when they did. They were 39 years old, too, and the year they bought it happened to be the Year of Horse in Chinese Zodiac. It took no time during our visit for Dennis and Michelle to realize that the Horse Inn is not their parent’s restaurant anymore. Sure, the dining room is in the former second floor hayloft and the horse stalls are still the formation for the booths. As it should be, the rustic nature of the building, a barn acting as a speakeasy, changed into tavern and restaurant, and finally gastropub, will not be readily transformed. And, the renowned tenderloin tips on toast still grace the menu.
The Russells pride themselves with artful cocktails and craft beers, served from two bars on the second floor, as much as their fresh and contemporary food choices. The food menu tends to change daily depending on what is in season, but there are always staple items, too.
Michelle begins the night with a well-made cocktail and Dennis with his favorite IPA. 18-year aged balsamic and Season’s Taproom olive oil form the base of homemade Burrata, which is the Horse Inn’s house-pulled mozzarella tucked full of creamy housemade ricotta surrounded by local heirloom tomatoes. As Michelle places a large serving of the Burrata on a slice of Alfred and Sam’s French bread, she gives the platter back to Dennis who says, “I was going to cry if you weren’t going to give it back to me.”
Citrus Shrimp Lettuce Wraps with ginger-scallion dressing, drizzled with housemade kimchi ketchup, and served in bibb lettuce wraps clear Michelle’s sinuses. Peanuts and pickled radish garnish the wraps and provide additional contrast.
“How can you go wrong with this combination?” asks Michelle of the Middle Neck Clams floating in a heavy cream, white wine, leek, and butter broth. Brined Chicken Wings are fried and served crispy with medium-hot house sauce, housemade bleu cheese dressing, and celery. If our guests had wanted the wings with more bite, they would have been happily prepared that way.
Chef Matt honed his skills for butchering at the now Lititz-based Rooster Street Provisions, the butcher and handcrafted charcuterie shop. It is a one-of-a-kind Rooster Street sausage that flanks the Horse Fries, in garlic heavy cream and house hot sauce, coated with parmesan and aged provolone cheeses. Dennis cannot get enough of these fries, all but tapping our waitress’s hand when she attempts to take away the plate with just three fries left on it. Chef Matt explains that friends from another local restaurant, who dine on these Horse Fries frequently, call them “crack fries” due to their addictive nature. “Crack fries, indeed,” says Dennis.
While taking a breath and having another craft beer, Dennis and Michelle overheard a millennial tell his table full of friends as they sit down how great the food is here. The folks at the table get their cocktails and proceed to the shuffleboard table for a friendly game before ordering their food. A baby boomer and her father sit at another table, and our radio friends find the diversity of customers delightfully uncanny.
Martin’s potato bread serves as the encasement for the Fried Green Tomato BLT. Local Riverbound Deli bacon, fresh mozzarella, basil, pesto aioli, and Brogue Hydroponics baby greens tie it all together. “Susi, this is the best BLT I have ever had in my life,” exclaims Dennis to me, attributed to the tomatoes being firm but not hard, not limp, nor oily. An interesting custom blend of short rib, brisket, chuck, and ten percent dry aged beef from Philadelphia’s Exceptional Foods, Inc. forms the Horse Inn Cheeseburger. Michelle says, “The burger literally melts in your mouth; the meat is not overworked.” She adds, “These medium rare burgers are exceptional,” playing on the Exceptional Foods label. Aside from the indulgent blend of beef, the 50-some-year-old cast iron grill where the burgers are cooked adds to the flavor. Toppings are lettuce, tomato, American cheese, and a special sauce (think Thousand Island dressing, but one “Thousand” times as good). An Alfred and Sam’s bun joins this burger.
Though approaching the end of local corn, the Russells happily hold onto the very end of the season with their Sweet Corn and Prosciutto Fioretti dish. The shape and rough texture of the Fioretti pasta is the perfect vessel to hold onto the corn and prosciutto, and the sundried tomato, vidalia onion, parmesan, brandy, and herb-enhanced cream sauce.
“There is nothing like meat cooked in its own fat,” says Michelle as two confit dishes arrive at the table. Crispy Confit Chicken Legs top a bed of jasmine rice, okra, and Benton’s bacon in a tomato broth. Dennis says with confidence, “Confit. That’s French for awesome, right?” We all agree. An Alfred and Sam’s roll turns a confit pork shoulder into a sandwich dubbed, “The Dutchie,” with housemade sauerkraut, horseradish dill pickles, local swiss, and stoneground mustard mayo. With its array of ingredients, Michelle likened The Dutchie to a Cuban sandwich, and changed the name of the dish for the night to Lancaster Cuban, stating, “You know what… I’m a Lancaster Cuban.”
There is one more dish to try— before desserts. Giving up summer is always hard to do and the next dish reflects this with its ingredients. Sweet corn shows up one last time with cornmeal-dusted Rhode Island Fluke paired with pear tomatoes, patty pan squash, and roasted potatoes in a Meyer lemon white wine sauce. The discussion centers around the fact that all fluke is flounder but not all flounder is fluke, and the cute look of tender, micro patty pan squash shaped like toy tops.
Sous Chef Ryann Bricker and Starla make the house desserts at the Horse Inn and it is grandmother’s classic recipe which Ryann uses for his molasses-rich Shoo Fly Pie—said to be a combination of the dry and wet versions. Starla makes a Southern-style custard-like Buttermilk Pie—think lemon bar turned into a pie—as an ode to meeting Chef Matt while working in Charleston, South Carolina. A crisp-mantled, classic Vanilla Crème Brulee is a Michelle staple. And a chocolate Pot De Crème is topped with whipped cream and a pinch of sea salt, which everyone says has great contrast in its sweet, bitter, and salty tastes.
Matt asks Dennis and Michelle if there was anything they didn’t like, to which Dennis replies, “Yeah, I don’t like that I’m full.”
“Everything is so good here, when I come back I won’t know what to order,” Michelle says. She adds, “Maybe I’ll come back with a crew and do some plate sharing like we did tonight.” With that said, it’s safe to say the Horse Inn lives up to the hype.
540 East Fulton Street, Lancaster PA