On Wednesday nights at the Whip Tavern in West Marlborough, you can expect to find some regulars at the bar, mesmerized by a simulcast of the latest local steeplechase on the TV. One, apparently fresh off her horse, was still in her dusty riding breeches.
There were creamy drafts of Old Speckled Hen and local dry cider in the pint glasses. There were cheesy pools of molten Welsh rarebit for dipping. A riding crop has even been cast in bronze for the front door handle, just in case one didn't catch the equestrian theme.
For the last decade, the Whip has been the cozy pub heart of Chester County horse country. Nestled among the rolling green pastures and twisty lanes, the whitewashed building that was once a blacksmith shop and former cowboy bar is now fitted out with a fireplace hearth and woody English accents. A gracious stone back patio beside the gurgling Doe Run is an al fresco favorite for local gentry nibbling deep-fried Scotch eggs and comforting crocks of shepherd's pie.
This is the last place I might have expected to find Anne Coll.
To date, the talented Media native has been better known as an Asian-fusion master, cooking for several years with Susanna Foo and also at Meritage, where her foie gras-stuffed dumplings, tea-smoked pork, and kobe-stuffed Viet-style grape leaves won admiration even as the wider trend began to fade.
But Coll, who lives and raises chickens in Chester County, is closer to home now, both geographically and in spirit, able to tap her family's Lancaster County roots and a desire to cook closer to the land and seasons.
Inspiration doesn't get much closer than the nearby Farm at Doe Run, whose gorgeous cheeses - creamy white Hummingbird, tangy Bathed in Victory washed in Storm King beer, Alpine-style St. Malachi - are among my local favorites and always featured on a starter platter.
There are more obvious ways, though, where Coll is making her mark. Those signature foie gras dumplings are now called "ravioli" and were served, on my first late-August visit, with basiled corn and zucchini. By fall, they were coming with roasted butternut squash and apple butter. Likewise for the succulent seared scallops, which posed over creamed white corn and chanterelles in summer, but which have since settled into a fall mood of creamed leeks and truffled fingerling potatoes. A mound of boneless rabbit meat, cooked down with cider-plumped golden raisins over earthy polenta, is a taste of true farm comfort.
If you're able to detect a hint of star anise and cinnamon in those tender shreds of rabbit, that's because Coll hasn't abandoned her Asian training entirely. A touch of pho spice and the subtle sweetness of Chinese red cooking are just part of the secret to Coll's amazingly tender short ribs, which have my vote for the best in the region. Mine came with roasted fingerlings and summer wax beans, now replaced with royal trumpets and candied carrots.
But the Whip is more than just a chef showcase. This tavern, owned by K.C. Kulp, who says he "married into this thing" because his wife is a rider, has become a treasured local haunt with a casual atmosphere and a reliable roster of English standards that are more candidates for light updates rather than wholesale removal. (The seafood luxury pie, shelved by interim chef Terence Feury last year, should be making a comeback soon.)
In several cases, Coll has done just that. Her shepherd's pie looks similar to the last one I ate there shortly after longtime chef Wyatt Lash left in early 2014 but is more polished in preparation, the ground meat stuffing moist beneath those piped potatoes with a deeper lamb flavor, but not greasy at all. Her take on the pub's once daily changing "curry" is also considerably more refined. It has also settled for a while on a Thai seafood theme, a tumble of mussels and delicately cooked squid and shrimp bathed in a fresh coconut milk curry, whose creamy broth is tinted vivid yellow with turmeric and vibrates with ginger, chili, fish sauce and kaffir lime.
Some other standbys, though, still need work - such as the Scotch egg, whose deep-fried pork sausage ball was still raw near the hard-boiled egg at its core. Or the fish and chips, whose crust was a pretty turmeric yellow, but which were over-fried as stiff as a fillet-shaped plank. Or the "beef on weck," a roast beef sandwich ode to the Western New York classic that was so indelicately reheated and dry by the time it arrived at our table, it was more wreck than weck.
A lot of those lapses can be attributed to the sheer difficulty in getting skilled kitchen help this far out in the Chester County pastureland. But Coll says she has finally just hired a full complement of cooks, so I expect consistency to improve. (Note to new mashed potato chef: The beet-stained pink spuds alongside the roast salmon should probably not be lukewarm. To the salad chef: Don't forget vinegar in the endive's dressing.)
In the meantime, there are already many great dishes to build on. The pub classic called bubble and squeak is a fluffy mashed potato cake threaded with cabbage that comes to the table still sizzling in brown butter inside a little cast-iron skillet. Mushroom soup is served here as a crystal mahogany porcini consomme, rather than with the more common cream base, and the mosaic of various local mushrooms inside are each at their umami-soaked best, from feathery maitakes to snappy shiitakes to oyster 'shrooms.
Hummus takes a garden-fresh detour with bright-green English peas subbing for the usual garbanzos, whipped with mint beneath local goat feta. Beautifully cured salmon gravlax, infused with citrus, dill, and coriander, is sensational when those cool, sheer slices are draped atop the freshly fried warmth of mini-hash browns. Coll's ever-changing take on the pork chop is also stellar, incredibly moist and herby from its 24-hour cider brine, and served in August with a tangy peach BBQ sauce and creamy corn pudding. More recently, a spiced apple puree and kale have done the honors.
At each visit, our servers seemed to navigate the restaurant's transition with a familiar grace and outgoing attitude. Bryan made sure to drop off some fantastic deviled eggs - studded inside with bacon and jeweled on top with smoky bursts of trout roe - as the kitchen's mea culpa for the botched Scotch egg. (Apology accepted!)
Tania, meanwhile, made sure we didn't make the mistake of skipping the Whip's famous sticky toffee pudding. It was lighter than I recalled, the date cake almost a fluffy muffin . . . until it began soaking in that irresistibly rich sauce of creamy brown-sugar caramel pooling around its edges. At which point my spoon simply began flying with its gravitational pull until there was nothing left to scoop.
Changes can be good for any local institution that's managed to survive a solid decade - especially when it involves a talent such as chef Anne Coll. Even if the improvements are sometimes subtle.
Next week, Craig LaBan reviews DanDan near Rittenhouse Square.
VERY GOOD (two out of four bells)
THE WHIP TAVERN
1383 N. Chatham Rd., West Marlborough (Springdell), 610-383-0600; thewhiptavern.com
Talented chef Anne Coll has taken a surprising detour from her long history as an Asian-fusion master (Susanna Foo; Meritage) with the British-theme menu at this popular tavern amid the rolling hills of Chester County horse country. Her contributions are already evident in several dishes, increased seasonality, and finessed improvements to some of the pub classics. Some of the menu still clearly needs revamping. But this charming destination is already better than ever and likely to continue its rise under Coll's watch.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS Braised rabbit; scallops; house-cured gravlax; "bubble and squeak"; English pea hummus; foie gras ravioli; shepherd's pie; Doe Run Farms cheese plate; mushroom soup; sweet potato-apple soup; seafood curry; short ribs; pork chop; sticky toffee pudding. (Past favorites not retasted: Welsh rarebit; English onion soup; Black Mack burger.)
DRINKS The beer-centric list has one of the better selections of U.K. brew around, from Old Speckled Hen on "draught" to Tennent's, Innis & Gunn, BrewDog, and St. Peter's, as well as a very solid representation of local craft beers. Also worth noting are local ciders from Big Hill Ciderworks.
WEEKEND NOISE In neighborhood tavern fashion, the Whip can hit a boisterous 87 decibels. (Ideal is 75 decibels or less.)
IF YOU GO Lunch Wednesday through Saturday, 11 a.m.-4 p.m.; Sunday, 2-4 p.m. Dinner Sunday, Monday, and Wednesday through Thursday, 4-9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, until 10 p.m. Brunch Sunday, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Closed Tuesday.
Dinner entrees, $11.99-$32.99.
All major cards.
Free parking lot.